Lessons learned: The message matters, but so does the machine

Inside the Republicans' Voter Vault database.

Published June 27, 2006 7:06PM (EDT)

Is it possible to read too much into the results of a single special election?

The answer is yes, of course, and we've wondered lately whether Democrats aren't guilty of doing just that. Democrat Francine Busby lost out to Republican Brian Bilbray last month in the race to fill the seat of imprisoned GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham, and Democrats seem to be viewing that race as some sort of playbook for everything else in 2006: Get tough on immigration and ditch the culture-of-corruption stuff, and then all those near-miss pickup opportunities will somehow become Democratic seats in Congress.

Maybe that's right -- we're agnostic on immigration, and we're inclined to think the corruption is an electoral nonstarter except in races where the sitting incumbent is demonstrably crooked -- but there's another lesson to be learned from the Busby-Bilbray race: Democrats have to be more competitive on the ground.

We were taken aback when we read in the New York Times earlier this month that while Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman had 160 campaign workers making 164,000 telephone calls in the run-up to Bilbray's victory, the Democratic National Committee had "no similar effort on the ground." Now an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times gives us a much clearer picture of what Republicans were able to do in California's 50th Congressional District -- and just how much more the Democrats have to do before they'll have a ground game that can keep up.

Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger, L.A. Times reporters who've just written "One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century," say that GOP officials were alarmed to discover, four days before the Busby-Bilbray election, that more absentee ballots were being submitted by Democrats than by Republicans. Their response: 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. "Suddenly," Wallsten and Hamburger write, "thousands of additional votes had been secured, and by election day, the GOP had turned around a costly deficit -- with 10,000 more Republicans than Democrats voting absentee."

While the Democrats also have access to voter databases, Wallsten and Hamburger say the GOP's "Voter Vault" database is much more powerful; it includes data from "retailers, magazine subscription services, even auto dealers" and gives the Republicans a way not just to identify sympathetic voters in a last-minute rush but also to find "previously unaffiliated voters or even wavering Democrats" they can court more methodically with carefully crafted messages.

The take-away lesson? "That even in the face of Republican scandals, sour approval ratings, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and growing public rejection of President Bush's policies in Iraq, the Republican Party still holds the lead in the art and science of obtaining power -- and keeping it."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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