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Virtual Politics

Candidates' consultants create the customized campaign.


In a dark basement somewhere beneath downtown Cincinnati, Rick Segal presents the attack plan. "The fact of the matter is it's war," he is telling a group of followers, who scribble notes. "It's a black-and-white world of wins and losses." He flashes war-movie clips on the screen and discusses the techniques of today's smartest warriors: Hamas, the Mexican Zapatistas, Asian triads, and other amorphous, stealthy networks. "Bastions, redoubts, and empires are subject to implosive attacks and ambush," Comrade Segal tells his men. Quoting from a Pentagon report, he adds: "In an information-age `battlespace,' massed forces will simply form juicy targets for small, smart attackers."

The scene might prompt an eavesdropper to call the FBI if the basement weren't a conference room in the posh Queen City Club, if the attendees weren't a bunch of corporate suits, and if Segal weren't sporting a polka-dotted bow tie beneath his chin. In fact, Segal, the head of a local marketing firm, is talking about network warfare, or "netwar," and, done his way, it involves no bloodshed. As the world advances beyond the industrial age of mass production, he believes, small and nimble enterprises can use technology to leave their larger, slower competitors in the dust. The concept isn't unusual in business circles; what's strange is Segal's latest client, the man who introduced Segal's war-games speech: Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., long-shot presidential candidate. Segal, using the same high-tech methods he employs to sell refrigerators, flooring, and telecom services, believes he can help Steve Forbes launch a guerrilla attack on the massed forces of George W. Bush.

The Forbes netwar, an effort to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from the favorite in 2000, is an opening salvo in what will be the first presidential campaign of the information age. Forbes is calculating that technology will redefine political campaigns in 2000 much as television did in the late '50s and early '60s--and he isn't alone in this forecast. The Gore campaign and both national political parties are making similar assumptions in their 2000 strategies. Why? For one, 76 million Americans are online already, according to the Nielsen ratings, and 70 percent of voting-age Americans will have Internet access by Election Day, according to a survey by Dataquest. At this time in the '96 campaign, only eleven percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers and only 14 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters were online, according to Forbes's internal polls; now some 57 percent of Republican caucus voters in Iowa and 68 percent of primary voters in New Hampshire have computers--and most use the Internet regularly.

But the Web is just the beginning. At the same time, vastly expanded consumer databases and enhanced computing power have put an unprecedented amount of information at the candidates' fingertips. If you're a registered voter, chances are the candidates know not just your name, address, and voting history but also your age and the age of your children, whether you smoke cigars, where you shop, where you attend church, what kind of car you drive, how old it is, whether you're on a diet, and what type of pet you have--to cite just a few examples. Using artificial intelligence and an array of new software programs, campaigns can then target and contact their likeliest supporters with unprecedented precision. The trend is further aided by the replacement of the giant national TV networks with cable, independent stations, and local news, which allows political spots to be targeted right down to a few hundred voters. In California, for example, there are some 180 cable systems from which a candidate can choose.

Many of the newfangled techniques are still too expensive for most campaigns. But, for Forbes, a wealthy publisher willing to spend some $50 million on the primaries, these new technologies are crucial. Forbes launched his campaign over the Internet and uses the Web to do advertising and sponsorships. He created an organizing tool called the "e-Precinct," which encourages participants to enroll friends, forming "e-Blocks," "e-Neighborhoods," and even an "e-National Committee." On June 16, he held a virtual fund-raiser in which participants had a private, online group chat with Forbes--after making a $10 credit card contribution. And, later in the campaign, Forbes will speak live, his image broadcast on the Internet, to a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire while he has a half hour of downtime in Iowa. Just as Clinton pioneered the rapid response in the 1992 campaign, the Internet allows Forbes 24-hour interaction, unfiltered by the news media.

Though the Forbes camp won't say what it spends on its online campaign (aides insist it's less than the $500,000 that industry experts have estimated), it's enough to fund five staffers full-time for the website alone. The website, which began at 670 pages and has expanded to include "photoscopes" with digital images, is easily the largest of all the candidates' sites. Technology is also shifting Forbes away from conventional polls to "database surveys." Rather than pose 50 questions to 300 randomly selected people, pollsters pose a few questions to thousands of people found on consumer-marketing databases. Forbes pollsters then do a computer analysis of dozens of personal characteristics--including age, family structure, consumer habits, home ownership, and magazine subscriptions--to figure out whether you will vote, how susceptible you are to persuasion, and what pitch will appeal to you most. Already the Forbes campaign is running targeted 2000 ads, using such vehicles as the History Channel, tailored to cable systems in early primary states. "We've gone from mass media to demassified media," says John McLaughlin, Forbes's pollster and media strategist. "People are overloaded with information. If you don't talk to them directly, they're going to lose interest." Campaign manager Bill Dal Col says this changes the whole nature of campaigns. "You don't have to shotgun anymore," he says. "You can now bullet."

What all these techniques have in common is an effort to establish a personal, one-on-one relationship between the campaign and each supporter based on the supporter's preferences. Call it the Customized Campaign. Instead of mass media and mass marketing, it's about individual interaction and personalized politics, fostered by technology. Instead of the old demographics, campaigns now are getting inside voters' heads to track "psychographics."

The Bush campaign, though it is weighing using an artificial-intelligence method to predict voter turnout in one early primary state, otherwise appears to be ceding the high-tech campaign to Forbes. Bush has spent only $15,000 on his website. Of course, Bush is currently leading the polls with the support of 54 percent of Republican primary voters, while Forbes can boast of the support of six percent. "A lot of that is, frankly, overrated," Karl Rove, a top Bush adviser, says of Forbes's computer techniques. "It's just a matter of sifting through the voter files." David Beckwith, who is overseeing Bush's website, figures Forbes's high-tech advantage won't be decisive. "I can't disagree that with extraordinary resources an electronic campaign can get an extra few points," he says, "but he's not going to be in the zone."

Others, however, will be in the zone even if Forbes isn't. "Forbes is one of our models," says new Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew. Andrew, who took over Indiana's Democratic Party after its '94 wipeout, created a "coordinated campaign" that employed technology and micro-targeting. In the next two elections, Indiana elected more new Democratic officeholders than in any year since 1932. Evan Bayh won a landslide victory in the Senate race, while other Democrats invaded local GOP strongholds (a black sheriff was elected in a county known for racial tension). And Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank O'Bannon, who badly trailed Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in the polls, beat the Republican on Election Day. What's the secret? "Customize, customize, customize," Andrew says.

Just as O'Bannon used new technology to beat Goldsmith (who is now Bush's policy adviser), Andrew believes, Democrats will use technology to defeat Bush and the Republican House and Senate candidates in 2000. The DNC chairman argues that, with the breakdown of neighborhoods, civil society, and the old ward and precinct system, a politics based on geography has been replaced by a politics of shared interests. "All politics is local, but local has been redefined," he says. Now people will associate with fellow gardeners or car enthusiasts wherever they are, often through the Internet. That's why Andrew, in Indiana, blended the state's voter files with data about age, race, income, religion, magazine subscriptions, and the like to build detailed information on all voters. He gave cd-rom disks with that information to local organizers, who used it for calls, mailings, and door-to-door canvassing, enhancing the database with new, more personal information along the way. That personal touch helped Democrats boost turnout, a technique that "will be huge in 2000," Andrew vows. "There are 50 counties in America who may determine who's the next president," he says. And, by targeting individuals in each of those counties with coordinated, personalized mail, e-mail, calls, and visits, the Democrats will win the White House, he thinks.

Nobody is quite as fascinated with this possibility as Al Gore, who checks his campaign website a couple of times a day and phones in suggestions for changes. Gore, of course, represents precisely the kind of massed force Forbes's people are hoping to use their new technology to defeat. But Gore seems to believe that there's no reason why he can't combine technology with a conventional campaign. With that goal in mind, Gore brought Andrew to the DNC to reproduce the Indiana experiment nationally. Gore has also hired some of the leading Democratic technologists, such as Hal Malchow, a direct-mail specialist; pollsters Mark Mellman and Mark Penn; Laura Quinn, a satellite-communications specialist; and policy adviser Elaine Kamarck, who just edited a book titled Governance in a Networked World.

Malchow, a sort of mad political scientist, pushes the boundaries of technology with "Chi-Square Automatic Interaction Detection," or chaid analysis, which he believes improves on conventional polling. Instead of using small samples and guesswork, this software can use mounds of empirical data to predict the juiciest fund-raising targets, the easiest voters to persuade, and the likeliest to vote. Rather than extensively interviewing a few hundred people from random phone lists, Malchow employs a shorter "minipoll" of up to 10,000 people. He then mixes the results with voter lists, census data, and consumer lists, and the computer determines which combination of variables (message and demographics) will deliver the best results (votes). Using the technology in Ron Wyden's 1998 Senate race in Oregon, Malchow found that young independents in high-education neighborhoods with high Asian American populations would be particularly open to Wyden. A poll couldn't have found that odd fact because the samples are too small.

Soon Gore's techies will be venturing further into weird science. Malchow talks about "neural nets," an artificial-intelligence software program that can make predictions based on patterns among multiple variables that computers can recognize but traditional regression analysis can't. It can determine to what degree a voter's opinion has to do with gender, region, voting history, and other variables. Malchow also talks about "genetic algorithms," in which a computer finds the strongest links among a large number of variables by "breeding" variables to find the "fittest" combinations in a Darwinian game. It's far-out, but when Malchow made his presentation to the Gore campaign, the vice president himself showed up. "He eats this stuff up," Malchow says.

GORE'S democratic challenger, Bill Bradley, is no Luddite himself. Bradley has been out front in online fund-raising, leading the attempt to get regulators to accept Internet credit card contributions for matching funds. Bradley has also been using the Internet to register voters. His staffers are handling some 800 e-mail queries a day, and they planned a June trip to California in consultation with his 1,500 Internet supporters in the state.

On the Republican side, Tom Cole, chief of staff to the Republican National Committee chairman, vows not to be outdone by the DNC. "We think this is akin to what television was in the 1950s," Cole says. Aristotle Publishing, a nonpartisan political technology company with strong ties to Republicans, has been working with America Online to create political banner ads that appear only on the screens of those computer users campaigns wish to reach. The company also produces software that manages every aspect of a campaign, merging constituent-service data with fund-raising information. Aristotle predicts that five to ten percent of campaign money will be raised through the Internet in 2000 and as much as 80 percent in the 2004 election. That's self-serving, perhaps. But with five presidential candidates using its software, Aristotle isn't alone in its expectations.

Both John Kasich and Pat Buchanan are using sophisticated electronic campaigns to try to knock Bush down. Kasich, who styles himself as the JFK of the information age, has enlisted Mark Kvamme, the chairman of USWeb/CKS, to run his e-campaign. Kvamme has customized the Kasich website so that voters from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio will see different pages when they log in. A "Who's Your Hero?" interactive page on the Kasich site received more than 1,000 nominations in its first few weeks. Win or lose, Kasich will use the names and personal data he gathers in the future.

Buchanan, meanwhile, has reactivated his "Buchanan Brigade" from the '96 campaign. The Brigade has tens of thousands of names, and, in between campaigns, webmaster Linda Muller ("I'm the Brigade mom") used the list for other purposes, such as stopping a plan in Alabama to fingerprint driver's license applicants.

These technologies, though new to politics, have been developing in the private sector for the past decade, and many of them are already common in the world of electronic commerce. In business, mass customization is replacing mass production, while "one-on-one marketing" is replacing mass marketing. The tools of the trade are vast databases that keep tabs on some 180 million American consumers. Data businesses such as the Polk Company and Acxiom Corporation amass information from warranty cards, motor vehicle records, and millions of consumer lists, allowing them to identify when you bought your car, what your hobbies are, whether you have a hunting license, what type of work you do, whether you own a boat or an RV, what your ethnicity is, what type of block you live on, what kinds of exercise you do, whether you collect stamps or take photographs, and whether you drink wine or gamble.

Politicians began to join the technology game in the 1980s, when the parties began to put state and local voter lists, which had been compiled by hand, into computer databases. But electronic profiling and targeting wasn't sophisticated enough (or cheap enough) to be of much value, and it wasn't until the '96 election that some campaigns began to dabble in artificial intelligence. The Internet became a factor for the first time in '98, when it played a role in Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial victory in Minnesota. Ventura's website wasn't flashy (it cost just $600), but he used it to organize volunteers, to fund-raise, to sell the wrestler's action figures, and to act as an interactive billboard for supporters. The JesseNet e-mail list is now up to 7,000 members.

Now, political consultants are finding new uses for the enhanced information. Paula Kowalczuk, a Democratic consultant, mixes government and private data and then divides voters and their neighborhoods into one of 62 categories, or "lifestyle clusters," including "Deer Hunter," "Gen X," and "Lower Bohemia." Campaigns can then target their messages accordingly. Similarly, Roger Lee, a direct-mail consultant, uses data and technology to divide voters into 120 ethnic categories (only about ten categories were possible in '96). Computers can decide whether a Hispanic voter should get a brochure in English, Spanish, or both.

The consumer information also allows campaigns to target their advertising more precisely, a necessity because of the fragmenting nature of TV and radio audiences. Ten or 15 years ago, the three big broadcast networks could reach 80 to 85 percent of voters, but that number has fallen to about 55 percent, says David Dixon, a Democratic media strategist. Instead, cable television now presents three-quarters of Americans with an average of 30 channels each, and several channels allow candidates to advertise on individual cable systems (some reaching as few as 5,000 households). Campaigns can reach older white men in one city with CNN while reaching black voters in another city with BET. Equally important, says Jon Hutchens, a Denver-based media buyer, is the proliferation of new networks such as Fox, UPN, Warner Brothers, and Pax TV.

Like it or not, the new political technologies are here to stay. Whether that's a good thing is the subject of some debate. Though it has the potential to reverse voter apathy, it might further disenfranchise the poor. Though it could limit the power of special interest groups, it might also cause presidential candidates to pander to more and more people, as if they were running for city council. "This is pretty scary to me," says Martha Rogers, whose books The One to One Future and Enterprise One to One have helped to spread the masscustomization idea through corporate America. "A politician can make me one promise and you one promise, and his competitor wouldn't even know it."

Candidates, of course, insist they won't deliver conflicting messages, though they agree the process is hard to monitor. Forbes aides argue that the e-campaign makes Americans feel more involved. Technology, though it can alienate, might also revive a Tocquevillian America, in which civic groups thrive online. "We're reconstructing the old-fashioned ward and precinct system," Segal says. "I may not be the first person to invent a political machine, but I may be the first to create a political machine that's really a machine."

One mailing the campaign already sent enclosed a survey on various issues--missile defense, the United Nations, term limits, morality, and others. If somebody scribbles a line about tax reform, the campaign will later personalize a form letter with a postscript from Forbes, saying, "Thanks for writing me about that tax issue last month. I put it in one of my speeches." That's a simple way to create a personal touch.

Others worry that e-campaigns will invade individual privacy, a danger when there's so much personal information for sale. Campaigns are taking some measures to reassure the public. Forbes's campaign, for example, says it won't use "cookies" or other devices to collect information about visitors to the site without their permission. Other campaigns say they won't send "spam," or unsolicited e-mail.

Segal says the Forbes campaign will send unsolicited e-mails to potential voters who meet the Forbes profile, but, to avoid complaints, the campaign will try not to send more than one unsolicited e-mail to each prospect. A more obvious way to avoid the privacy problem is to use information people supply themselves. Segal eventually will send up to eight e-mails per day with messages written according to the recipient's preferences. The website is gathering such preferences at every turn, requesting information about job, income, education, fraternity, and civic groups. "What's important to you?" the website asks at various points, offering 49 choices that cover everything from school prayer to Kosovo, crime to Y2K.

Often, those who are individually targeted won't even know it; they'll just see their junk mail as more relevant. In '97, while working for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, McLaughlin, Forbes's pollster, singled out upper-income professionals in Northern Virginia for a pitch on lowering the state's car tax. The campaign similarly delivered a pitch to mothers of school-age children about hiring 4,000 new teachers, while in rural southern Virginia it sent a tailored tobacco message to every tobacco farmer.

The privacy and democracy problems will become more pressing as the technology becomes more pervasive. For now, the debate will be about the merits of the technologies themselves. Though few doubt that they work, some doubt whether they work well enough to justify the cost. Some political commentators have proclaimed e-campaigns overblown, arguing that campaigns won't be able to reach enough of the voters they need via the Internet and that people don't go to the Internet for politics.

However, those who dismiss the Internet's role often assume e-campaigns are just about websites, which, in truth, are little more than electronic yard signs. The Internet is just a means of gathering and organizing information, and e-mail is just one way to deliver highly targeted messages. The point of e-campaigning is to use the information gathered through the Internet in order to better target people, not just through e-mail but through more traditional means, such as mail, phone calls, television, and door-to-door visits. And the Forbes campaign's techniques are already showing some promise in that regard: a recent review of the campaign's phone calls to potential supporters in an early primary state showed that, because of targeting, the calls had had an unusually high success rate of 20 percent.

The Forbes campaign is also working on new ways to attract those who wouldn't ordinarily surf the Web or seek out political sites. Forbes's Internet banner ads, which are already in use, will eventually be custom-delivered using Internet service providers' customer profiles so that the ads only appear on the screens of those people the campaign wants to reach--say, registered Republicans who live in Iowa.

More significant, though, is the use of Steve Forbes "pavilions" on popular websites. Segal pictures a "constellation of websites" linking voters to Forbes. Doctors for Forbes, Teachers for Forbes, North Dakotans for Forbes, and the like will use virtual bumper stickers that link viewers to the Forbes site. And such sponsorships face fewer legal restrictions than TV ads. Among the results of all these efforts: In its first six weeks, enrolled 12,720 volunteers and 1,620 e-Precinct leaders while racking up 20.3 million hits in 377,000 separate visits to the site.

Forbes advisers are the first to admit that all this won't be enough to win the nomination by itself. If the race isn't close, e-politics won't do much good. But, if Forbes's $50 million can somehow get him close to Bush, his futuristic campaign might make a difference. "Since 1952, most Republican presidential candidates have approached campaigns like Eisenhower: mass the troops," says Segal. Bush's advisers "are going to be tempted into the security of the last playbook, what happened last time." And, in the information age, the old playbook may be no match for a couple of guerrillas with laptops.