Thursday, October 12, 2006

Two from the Financial Times (UK)

"US may bequeath Bush a hostile Congress":

(snip) A Democratic Congress would almost certainly block any further Bush initiatives, to deprive Republicans of legislative accomplishments in the build-up to the 2008 contest. “Regardless of who controls Congress, the wind will be out of the president’s sails,” says Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.

However, the Democrats would use control of Capitol Hill to push through long-promised reforms. Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who is poised to become the first woman speaker of the House if her party wins, said this week she would use the first 100 hours of a Democratic majority to increase the minimum wage, reduce interest rates on student loans, expand federal funding for stem cell research and require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower costs for the Medicare prescription drug programme.

If the Democrats take the Senate too, they may be emboldened to tackle more difficult areas, such as reforms of education and healthcare. But Mr Bush will still possess his presidential veto, which he has used only once in his six years working with a Republican-controlled Congress.

There is also intense speculation among liberals that Democrats might even push to impeach Mr Bush for misleading the public into believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But any such efforts would almost certainly be stymied by the presidential ambitions of several Democratic senators, most notably Hillary Clinton. Anything that looked like vengefulness could rebound badly on her presidential ambitions.

Party arsenals feature duelling databases

Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Republican party for the state of Michigan, opens his laptop over lunch. At his fingertips is a voter database. Pulling up his own file he scrolls through more than 100 pieces of information, including his support for an assisted-suicide prohibition bill, his boat licence, sports interests and Catholicism.

His profile is part of a database called Voter Vault, which will be critical in the Republican midterm election campaign. Using basic voter information, with data analysis derived from polls of up to 50,000 voters and consumer databases, the party hopes to apply algorithms to predict how groups of people intend to vote and craft a message that appeals to them.

The technique, known as “micro-targeting” on the right and “modelling” on the left, is a sign of how far modern political campaigning has become a marketing exercise, with techniques that were traditionally used in broadcast advertisements applied to political communications. Nowadays political consultants tout “turnout scores”, “clusters” and “micro-targeted messages”.
In the US, generic electoral constituencies such as “soccer moms” and “Reagan Democrats” are broken down into even more forensic clusters. There are different algorithms to weigh cultural differences between West and East Texas. Strategists target finer demographic slices such as “high-income, God-respecting, terrorism-fearing Republicans” or “white women aged 35-45 with college educations, who are Catholic or Protestant and pro-life, with median incomes over $35,000 and live in $150,000-plus homes”.

During congressional elections in 2002, for example, Republicans used statistical analysis successfully to target “downscale white men” in Georgia with a message invoking the Confederate flag, which led to higher than expected turnout among that group. In West Virginia in 2004, they modelled “older white women churchgoers” in traditional Democratic strongholds and encouraged them to vote Republican with an anti gay-marriage message.

The US is far from the only democracy where science has been applied to democratic elections on such an unprecedented scale. One of the originators of the art is Lynton Crosby, a poll guru versed in precision targeting from his native Australia. In the British general election last year, the Conservative party used the Voter Vault database in a campaign masterminded by Mr Crosby, though his efforts failed to prevent Labour, which had its own targeting software, from achieving a third successive poll victory.

In the US, Republicans have been at the forefront of applying such techniques, led by Karl Rove, the chief political strategist for President George W. Bush.

The Republican National Committee boasts a unified voter file, systematically updated by volunteers, which rigorously tracks progress, such as how many pieces of new data were added to the system. In Michigan the data will be used to craft 12 different messages as part of the effort to get out the vote. “If you have a better ‘cookie cutter’, you’re going to make more cookies or votes,” says Mr Anuzis.

As one Democratic consultant concedes: “The world changed in 2004. The rules used to be that if voter turnout was high, that meant a progressive win. But in 2004, we had the highest voter turnout since the civil rights era – we didn’t win. Why? The Republicans found new ways to find new voters.”

The Republican effort was led by necessity – Democrats have long had advantages in the more primitive “geography-based” targeting because more of their voters were in urbanised, centralised precincts, making it easier for them to organise large turnouts. But the base precincts for Republicans – where 80-90 per cent of those who voted did so for them – were typically rural, and smaller, with 100 rather than 10,000 votes.

This put a premium on winkling out individual voters likely to vote Republican in largely Democratic areas. In 2004, it was used in New Mexico to target Hispanics. Rather than a generic message, Republicans focused on the 20 per cent of Hispanics who supported Mr Bush’s education policy, No Child Left Behind. Their Hispanic vote rose 12 per cent compared with 2000.

Democrats acknowledge they are several years behind. In 2004, state parties continued to operate eclectic voter files with different formats that were hard to scale to a national level. It was too complex to interrogate the data about which groups might respond to a certain message.

At the Democratic National Committee there was an effort to catch up under Terry McAuliffe, former chairman, who created a unified voter database – yet it was largely used as a fundraising not an electoral tool. “While progressives tried doing modelling in 2002, their approach was to try it nationally, which doesn’t work. Put simply, a Texas Democrat and a Vermont Democrat are quite different Democrats,” says one Democratic strategist.

The DNC under Howard Dean has yet to embrace scientific modelling on such a scale as the Republicans. It will run just six micro-targeting projects this year, though independent groups on the left, such as the AFL-CIO, are filling the void. They are tapping into a new for-profit voter database operated by Catalist. The company, created this year, received funding from George Soros, the billionaire financier.

Outside groups, such as Emily’s List, pay Catalist to use their data for micro-targeting projects. The lessons – such as how to target voters who are most interested in the minimum wage – are then shared via America Votes, a grassroots voter-mobilisation operation that seeks to co-ordinate progressive groups in the 2006 elections and eliminate wasteful overlap in how they talk to voters.

Maggie Fox, president of America Votes, says her aim is to get progressive groups to work more closely and share electoral strategies, using micro-targeting to identify which organisations should be targeting which constituents. The group will spend $1.3m (£700,000, €1m) on micro-targeting projects in five key states, including Ohio and Michigan. “When we started doing it it was a bit like asking people to undress in public,” she says.

Yet she acknowledges the focus is on learning lessons that can be applied in 2007 and 2008, rather than making a big difference this year.

Donald Green, professor of political science at Yale University, remains sceptical of some of the claims made by advocates of micro-targeting. He agrees that it helps voter identification. “As a short cut way of identifying your supporters it is unassailable.” Yet he doubts some of the statistical inferences drawn from the data about partisanship, saying the evidence is more anecdotal than analytical.

Adrian Gray, director of strategy at the RNC, acknowledges the distinction, but says their advantage comes from having “the better message than our opponent, knowing where we send it, how many times we send it and through which medium it is sent”.

Yet in an election where macro issues such as Iraq dominate, it is hard to weigh the importance of mechanical techniques over the daily pounding from the news. “The difference between politics and the commercial marketplace is we have one day to measure success,” says Mr Gray.

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