What Your Party Knows about You

Time

Oct 18, 2004

Howard Dean didn't get it. Al Gore had no clue. The high-tech secret weapon of this election isn't blogging or viral e-mail or any other sexy buzzwords. It's something mundane and under the radar and totally unsexy: data. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have amassed vast secret databases of information about voters, which they jealously guard on the simple theory that the more you know about people, the easier it is to get their vote.

Juan Proaño

The Republicans began building their database, which they call Voter Vault, back in the mid-1990s. It's no accident they got a head start: Bush adviser Karl Rove used to run a direct-mail company, so he knows the value of a few good leads. "We don't say a lot about Voter Vault," notes Christine Iverson, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. "A lot of the information is strategic, and the less the Democrats know the better." Secret it may be, but Voter Vault caused a stir last month when it emerged that the Republicans had — wait for it — outsourced some of its construction to a bunch of programmers in Maharashtra, India.

By 2001, the Democrats — the party of would-be overnerd Al Gore — were staring at a data gap. All they had was a few tens of thousands of e-mail addresses stored on a computer so obsolete its monitor was green. So they hired a small firm called Plus Three to build them a database of their very own, which they named Demzilla. Voter Vault and Demzilla currently hold about 165 million entries each.

So what's in these things? Any information about you that the parties can legally get their hands on. They start with voter-registration records, which are rich in priceless personal data like phone numbers, home addresses and birthdays. That info gets cross-referenced with census data plus records the parties keep: who worked or volunteered for them, who donated money. Names in Demzilla typically have 200 to 400 pieces of info attached to them.

But the secret sauce for any 21st century political database is email addresses — there's no quicker or cheaper way to get out the vote than by e-communicating directly with supporters. In addition, there may be magazine-subscription records, membership rosters from organizations like the AARP ... who knows? The parties aren't saying. "We probably have more information about the average voter than they care for us to have," admits Robert Bennett, chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio.

The more data the parties have, and the more ways they search, collate, cross-reference and puree them, using data-mining kung fu perfected by generations of direct marketers, the more precisely they can tailor their pitches to individual voters. Undecided black housewives under 35 will get very different phone calls from the Kerry campaign than Hispanic CEOs over 60. Data mining also helps the parties find, and sway, those all-important swing voters. "Now we can identify individuals within a neighborhood, in a state, in a market, where we never would have gone and looked before," says Juan Proaño, president of Plus Three.

So keep a close eye on your candidate, because you can be sure he's keeping an eye on you — and on the competition. "The Democrats have typically not had a very good database," the G.O.P.'s Iverson sniffs. "We're very happy to take all the information they give out about Demzilla and absorb it."