August 24th, 2006
Looking at coverage of the online political world, I sometimes wonder if we’re missing the point: blogs, YouTube and social media are fun and interesting, but are they winning elections?
Thinking about the Lieberman/Lamont primary, it seems clear that these new technologies can be useful for drawing attention and motivating supporters, but good old-fashioned local political organizing is what gets voters to the polls. Where electronic politics seems to be making a real difference is behind the scenes, in the decisions campaigns are making about which voters to contact and how to reach them.
Basically, it’s all about the databases, which the Republicans are masters of using. Particularly, they are terrific at cross-referencing voter databases with consumer marketing databases to find likely supporters in unlikely places and target them with finely-honed messages. In Ohio in 2004, different households on the same block often got completely different direct mail pieces and phone pitches, depending on what magazines a voter in the house subscribed to or what organizations he or she belonged to. The Dems did nothing comparable, as far as I’ve heard.
Things haven’t changed much since then, by the evidence. A couple of months ago, a colleague and I ended up in a bar conversation with a guy who’d just started as a programmer at the DNC and who was denigrating the Republicans for running their systems on Windows. Two weeks later, I read this piece in Salon about the race to succeed Duke Cunningham in California: seeing a deficit in absentee voters, “Republican activists “poured” into the district and searched a Republican Party database that could tell them everything about voters from their personal hobbies and professional interests to the brand of toothpaste they’re likely to use. The activists identified likely Bilbray supporters from the database, then set about dialing their numbers and knocking on their doors.”
The result: Republican absentee voters outnumbered Democrats by 10,000, a critical number in a special election. Linux may earn Dems geek cred, but it didn’t prevent their getting their asses handed to them on the organizing front. If progressives want to win, they (we) have to pay more attention to the nuts and bolts of microtargeting. Thinking like a business marketer rather than a blogger every now and then would be a good start.