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Parties Are Tracking Your Habits

Though both Democrats and Republicans collect personal information, the GOP's mastery of data is changing the very nature of campaigning.

July 24, 2005|Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten Times Staff Writers | Times Staff Writers

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At first glance, Felicia Hill seems to fit the profile of a loyal Democrat: She is African American, married to a General Motors union worker and voted for Dukakis, Clinton and Gore in past presidential elections.

But in the weeks before election day 2004, the suburban mother of two was deluged with telephone calls, invitations and specially targeted mailings urging her to support President Bush.

The intense Republican courtship of Hill, 39, was no coincidence.

A deeper look at her lifestyle and politics reveals a voter who might be persuaded to switch sides. Among the clues: she is a church member uneasy about abortion; she lives in a growing suburb and she sent her children to a private school.

Hill and millions of other would-be Bush backers in closely contested states were identified by a GOP database that culled information ranging from the political basics, like party registration, to the personal, such as the cars they drive, the drinks they buy, even the features they order on their phone lines. The "micro-targeting" effort was so effective that the party credited it with helping to secure Bush's reelection.

In Ohio, which tipped the election to Bush, the Republican strategy helped boost African American support for the president by seven percentage points over his 2000 performance, securing the state for the president. It drew millions of Republican voters to the polls in every battleground state.

Nationally, Republicans said, the targeting produced a 10 percentage point increase for Bush among evangelicals, nine points among Latinos, four points in big cities, three points in labor-union households and five points among Catholics -- all groups that were wooed by both parties.

Both parties have long collected information on voters. But the sophistication of the GOP effort is now so clearly superior that it has given Republicans an edge in an area that had been a Democratic strength: identifying sympathetic voters and getting them to the polls.

Democrats will be especially vulnerable in the next two national election cycles: In 2006, they will have to defend more congressional and Senate seats than they did in 2004; and several states viewed as competitive in past presidential elections are increasingly viewed as GOP turf for 2008.

Hill said the campaign outreach effort had such an effect on her that she was unable to decide who to vote for until she was in the booth. She ultimately chose Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry over Bush. But Hill said she was now open to Republican arguments in a way she never was before.

For the first time, she sees the GOP as a place where black women can be comfortable

"I saw people I could relate to," she said, describing conversations she had with Republican professional women during telephone outreach calls and at party events. During one campaign event in Dayton, the president was introduced by Hill's friend Donald K. McLaurin, the black mayor of suburban Trotwood.

"I saw families there who seemed like our family, and I found that their ideology lined up with mine," she said.

Such sentiments signal progress for the Republican Party as it seeks to achieve the goal set by White House strategist Karl Rove of building a majority that will last well into the 21st century.

Hill and others who either backed Kerry or didn't vote are likely targets as the party prepares for midterm elections in 2006 and the presidential contest in 2008, a process that is moving full speed ahead at Republican National Committee headquarters and state party offices across the country.

Democratic strategists see hope in Bush's falling approval ratings -- now consistently below 50% -- and the public's declining support for key White House priorities such as revamping Social Security and pursuing the Iraq war.

In Ohio, they hope to benefit from a scandal over Republicans' dubious investment of state funds. And Democrats have recently added field staffers in several states, including six in Ohio and three in West Virginia -- unusual moves in an off year.

But in the mechanics of modern party-building, Democrats acknowledge a serious lag that could prevent them from making gains even when public opinion and other factors are swinging in their direction.

"The Republicans have been working on this for a decade, and that's why they" are defeating us, said Dennis L. White, the Democrats' state party chairman in Ohio, referring to the GOP's technological advantage. "We are still three years behind."

The GOP's mastery of data is changing the very nature of campaigning.

Rather than concentrating on building the widest possible support, the Republican Party now focuses on finding known and potential Republican voters, learning about their interests and concerns in unprecedented detail and then delivering to them a tailored message.

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