Presidential election goes high-tech: Targeted voter relationship marketing

The Howard Dean presidential campaign proved the Web and blogs have changed the way politicians raise money and reach voters at the grassroots level. The use of more technology, such as wireless networked databases, are making the 2004 presidential campaigns go high-tech with terms like CRM, microtargeting and reaching voters using regional and local information to better craft the campaign message.

Business 2.0 magazine columnist John Heilemann gave us a few minutes to talk about how technology and the Internet will continue to impact the presidential elections of 2004 and the high-tech political arms race that has been set in motion.

Q: You wrote an article in the April issue of Business 2.0 how information technology and the Internet are making the 2004 presidential campaign a new era in politics. Please explain the premise of the article.

Heilemann: The column I wrote is about a guy named David Rosenthal who was the political director at the AFL-CIO ended a lot of important work there in terms of getting labor to be a rejuvenated political force. He said television advertising is turning everybody off. He wanted to take politics back to the future, back to the 19th century ideal. He could be more effective by focusing on grassroots, on mobilization, on getting voters to register and getting voters to turn out by actually talking to them and pinpointing those people in a more precise, individual way. For him, it was the rebirth of door to door knocking and figuring out what issues people count on by getting into a conversation with the voter rather than screaming over the television.
He discovered that new technology could aid in the process enormously. He left the AFL-CIO after the 2000 campaign and now runs a group called “America Coming Together,” one of those political action committees. They are taking all their money and putting it all into high-tech voter mobilization. They are launching what is effectively the best funded, most sophisticated and most technologically enabled grassroots organizing effort in the history of presidential politics.

Q: How are they doing that?

Heilemann: There are a relatively small number of states that people think are up for grabs – 17 or 18 of them that campaigns like to call the “battleground states.” More particularly, there are 4-5 states that they think will be decisive in the election because the electorate is so polarized right now and there are such a small number of undecided voters out there. Finding who those voters are really matters a lot. The key states for both Democrats and Republicans are Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Florida.

Q: Where does technology enter in?

Heilemann: There have always been voter roles, information stored in databases and you could always break down by census tract or by community or by city. Now that information is getting more and more granular so you’re getting block by block data about people. The technology XML is now allowing parties to do something which it has never been able to do – take incompatible data types from all these different databases and actually “munge” data together so that now they have a much more nuanced view of who’s out there and who the people are who are the best, most likely targets for the door to door outreach efforts.

They sent out thousands of kids with Palm handheld computers with custom software and sometimes with tiny media players. They knock on the doors of people they think might be persuadable, ask them a few questions, try to find what they care about, enter that information back into the system and the system gets synced back up to a Web-based voter file system. This allows them to not only have all this information but also allow them to talk to these people not just once but consistently over the course of the election as the campaign plays out. You are then able to track those voters and what they’re saying to you over time, That gives you a really powerful tool to see whether you’re persuading these people and moving them closer towards your column and whether they’re somebody you would spend money on later on to show up at their house on election day with a car and say we’re going to take you to the polls!

This is really a refined, high-tech way of doing what traditional voter turnout has been.

Q: Tell us about this new term “Microtargeted” database information?

Heilemann: Microtargeting is the next wave. They’re just starting to get their toe in the water for this campaign. Microtargeting really is the future of political media. It is taking all the data that we were just talking about and then layering on top of that data all the stuff commercial marketing knows about people: magazines you subscribe to, civic organizations your part of – all the stuff that data mining companies now look at. If we put all the consumer commercial data together with the political data you start it very sophisticated models such as a 42-year-old suburban mother with two kids who drives a Volvo and reads “House and Garden.” Not so much whether she’s a Democrat or Republican, but what issues are that woman likely to care about. Would she, for instance, be amenable to a pitch about environmental protection? As they analyze this data, you start to be able to get not just a data set that boils down to a promising census block of a neighborhood, but literally being able to microtarget down to an individual. We know that Joe Blow, who lives at 4235 Hamden Lane, is someone who — given your past voter history, what you buy, what your family size is, where ethnic background is, where your income status is – you in particular is someone the we need to get your house.

Politics, like commercial marketing, is all about cost efficiency. How effectively can you spend the time and the money to produce the closest ratio of dollars to vote? The extent to which you can weed out many unlikely people and focus all of your time on the likeliest people that you can bring to vote for your side, you are successful. These guys are using the abilities of the data mining technologies and the Web to take this political process to a very exquisitely fine-tuned, intensely targeted mode of political communication and persuasion.

John Heilemann’s article “Rewiring the War Room” is available in the April issue of Business 2.0 and online at

For more conversation with John Heilemann, the full interview will broadcast Saturday on KLAY 1180 AM at 11 a.m. and is online at
Dana Greenlee is co-host/producer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.