Democrats Used Databases In Election Wins Over GOP - InformationWeek

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Democrats Used Databases In Election Wins Over GOP

The Democratic National Committee spent $8 million this cycle building a multiterabyte relational database that contained 300 million records.

Pundits have ascribed the sweeping Democratic victories in this year's midterm elections to a number of factors, including corruption and dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. But Democrats had at least one more weapon at hand during this election cycle that had lagged behind Republicans in prior elections: vast databases of public and commercial data that were used to find and target likely Democratic voters in a method politicos called microtargeting.

Republicans built and have mined their own Voter Vault databases since 2002, and some analysts have credited at least part of President Bush's win in 2004 to a get-out-the-vote campaign catalyzed by that data. Democrats built similar databases, but until this cycle they were marred by problems such as incorrect address formats that had Florida residents living in the city of Fort and the state of Lauderdale, or data errors that had more names listed in the data on Colorado than the number of people who actually live in that state.

But things were different this time around. While Republicans continued to use microtargeting, Democrats significantly stepped up their efforts. The Democratic National Committee spent $8 million this cycle on a multiterabyte relational database from Netezza; somewhere between 60% and 70% was filled with data purchased from InfoUSA.

Meanwhile, Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, set up his own database called Catalist for a group called America Votes, a Democratic coalition of interest groups that targeted campaigns in battleground states. "We've caught up to, if not passed [the Republicans] on the technological level," says Ken Strasma, president of Strategic Telemetry, a microtargeting firm that works with the Democratic Party.

One scenario for microtargeting goes like this: Pet owners tend to vote Democratic, female cat owners even more so. Married women with children also tend to vote more Democratic than Republican. So if you see a woman at the polls with a ring on her finger, a toddler in her arms, and cat dander on her jacket, chances are you know who she's voting for. That and other data also is available in publicly and commercially available forms, so chances are the Democratic Party machine also knows who this lady is and may have bombarded her with specially crafted phone calls, mail, and television ads.

The DNC's voter file database contains 300 million records with more than 900 fields per record, everything from voting history to purchasing power to whether the voter has a hunting license. The system can handle 30 to 40 queries at once, automatically cleans up dirty addresses (data from the entire state of Massachusetts can be cleaned in a few hours as opposed to several days), and crunches numbers up to 20 times faster than it did in the past, according to Gus Bickford, a consultant who helped implement the DNC database.

The lists get rebuilt three times a year and could quadruple in size in two or three years because of voters moving and the volume of data that keeps flowing in. Previously, the data mining was limited in scope and scale. Throughout this election, however, data on all 50 states was always available and modeling was being done for party workers in any of the states who requested it.

Strategic Telemetry's Strasma says microtargeting may well have tipped the balance of power in the tight Senate races in Virginia and Montana, traditionally Republican-leaning states, by among other things getting to voters in heavily Republican counties that may have otherwise been overlooked. Still, while the Democrats may have caught up, they can't relax. "It's good for us, just as it is in any industry, to go out and make our universe larger," Bickford says. After all, the 2008 presidential race is just around the corner.

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