Politics

Wired to Win

The 2006 campaign is being fought with digital weapons--and candidates aren't always at the controls.
by | October 2006

Julie Dennis knows there's something wrong with the data. She's walking along Ruddiman Drive in North Muskegon, Michigan, near the place where she grew up, knocking on doors as part of her campaign for the state Senate. It isn't a casual stroll. Dennis devotes almost all of her time to the pursuit of a targeted list of persuadable independents who might tip the contest in her favor. For that reason, she is using data provided by the state Democratic Party and downloaded to a Palm handheld that tells her which doors along Ruddiman Drive--and all around the four-county West Michigan district- -belong to the crucial swing voters. But one of the first houses belongs to a friend, a woman she knows to be a solid Democrat. Dennis isn't sure how this name got on the list. She deletes it from the device. Then she wedges a flier into the screen door anyway, just in case.

As far as Dennis can tell, it's the only example out of 57 doors on today's schedule where the Palm made a mistake. She acknowledges that more precise databases and other technological advances help her to use time and other resources more efficiently. Still, for Dennis, the miscoding of her friend offers a small suggestion that she may know the 34th Senate District of Michigan better than the party strategists in Lansing do.

Dennis, after all, is as local as they come. She is 43, lives in a house built by her grandfather, and comes from a large clan with roots throughout the district. Two of her siblings are devoting endless hours to her campaign, and her father keeps interrupting her door- knocking with calls to her cell phone about a used car he wants her to buy. Attending a senior citizens function early that morning, Dennis seemed to know every third person who approached her table. "I played basketball with her daughter," she says in greeting Marjorie Lawson. "That was 60 pounds ago."

For all her affinity with the area, though, the leadership of her party isn't willing to turn Julie Dennis loose to run her own show. Michigan Democrats are nursing hopes of taking the state Senate back for the first time since 1983. For that to happen, they're counting on Dennis to beat Jerry Van Woerkom, the 59-year-old incumbent Republican who won the seat in 2004 by just 900 votes. The leadership of the Senate Democratic Caucus has brought in a member of its communications staff, Liz Kerr, to manage Dennis' campaign, and Emily's List, the feminist political organization with close ties to the national Democratic Party, has an operative working here full time as well.

Caucus committees, leadership offices and interest groups have always lent staff, money and other resources to candidates, but their dominant role in fund-raising and strategy grows with each passing campaign cycle. This year, caucus committees in Michigan will raise and spend more money in competitive elections than the nominees themselves, and they'll help direct even more funds from outside sources to the races they consider close.

"It used to be in the old days that everybody in Lansing would hear that such and such a district was going to be marginal, but they would basically just sit there and wait for the returns on election night," says Bill Ballenger, a former state legislator and editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "They might help with some money here and there, but the idea of actually coming in, big footing and acting like the 800-pound gorilla in the district, saying 'You don't know how to run your own campaign and we're going to hire your people'--that didn't happen."

In a sense, legislative campaigns are reverting to patterns of long ago. Where the stakes are high, as in Michigan this year, the decisions are coming down from above. The candidate, as well-connected as he or she may be at the local level, is more an instrument of party purpose than an independent actor. The brief heyday of the entrepreneurial candidate is drawing to a close. A new era of party control--not the old-fashioned machine kind but a different kind--is starting to emerge. That's true for Republicans and Democrats alike. "I wish we had more control over our own races," Van Woerkom says. "But the Republican Party has spent lots of money on databases and software. That money wasn't spent not to use them."

Ken Brock, chief of staff to the Michigan Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, pays homage to the idea that candidates with a good feel for local issues and personalities are crucial. But he seems more interested in helping to "educate our candidates" about the resources, messages and tactics that will work best for them. "If you have a candidate who's good one on one, you can marry that mom-and- popapproach to a more powerful tool," Brock says. "The way I see it is that they're all highly competent people, but they haven't had the experience of running in an expensive, marginal contest."

The increased technical sophistication represents an important change in itself. Only a few years ago, when the caucus committees first got seriously into the game, their databases still targeted voters solely by precinct. Now they crack open each subdivision and make a good guess about which residents are socially liberal and which ones are anti-tax conservatives.

The same mix of technology and other caucus resources is evident in every state where a legislative chamber is in play this fall. There are 41 legislative chambers where a net change of five seats or fewer would mean a switch in party control, and virtually every one is seeing high-tech campaigns and sophisticated targeting.

In Indiana, House Republicans fighting to preserve a two-seat majority are shifting funds as often as two or three times a week, based on how the key contests look in tracking polls. "The only candidates that will be running their own races are the ones that have no chance," says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight. "Everybody else is fully coordinated with their respective party's campaign committee."

HELP FROM BANGLADESH

Money is still the main thing the parties have to offer. The targeted Michigan Senate races will each cost between $750,000 and $1 million per side, but most individual candidates will be lucky to raise $250,000 themselves. The legislative caucuses will provide the rest, both from their own accounts and from interest groups that share the party's agenda. The good news for candidates in targeted races is that they will receive all the financial help they could ask for. No candidate with a serious hope of winning a marginal seat in the Michigan Senate or the Indiana House will be able to complain on November 8 that he could have beaten his opponent, if only he had raised $25,000 more. They will be fully funded. The bad news is that the money comes at a price--these candidates essentially lose the freedom to separate themselves from the party program and craft a message of their own to appeal to a local constituency.

It's not merely that party caucuses control the greater part of the campaign budget. They send out staff to run the closest races. In Michigan, it's been a felony for a decade for Senate staffers to do political work on the state's time. But they can go on leave from their state jobs--Kerr is doing that in Muskegon, as are at least a dozen staffers around the state in each party--and they don't miss a paycheck after transferring to the political payroll. The caucus covers the cost.

The caucuses also are the main source of a campaign's technical expertise--determining which voters are most worthy of contact and a candidate's time. Television advertising, aside from a few cable spots, is rare in these relatively small districts. It's just not worth the money to broadcast a message to thousands of voters who live outside the constituency. Instead, campaigns are trying to become more precise with their messages. Rather than sending out six or seven pieces of mail district-wide, they may send 20 different mailings to five different groups, such as veterans, seniors or gun owners.

How do they know which voter should get which piece of mail--and, more important, which swing voters should have the candidate show up personally on their doorsteps? This is a particular challenge in Michigan, where voters don't register by party. Campaigns aren't even allowed to know which primary an individual voter participated in.

On the Democratic side, the mysteries of party identification are unraveled by Mark Grebner, an Ingham County commissioner and consultant. He takes a look at every piece of information he can find about a voter--her ethnicity; whether she lives in a precinct that turns out for hot Democratic primaries but not Republican ones; whether she's ever signed a petition to put an initiative or a candidate on a ballot. (To learn more about voters for his clients in Wisconsin, where he has less data, he pays a fellow in Bangladesh to read every letter to the editor in state papers via the Web and code them according to likely party preference.) Grebner takes all this information, runs a bunch of statistical analyses and assigns a percentage to each voter's likelihood of voting Democratic.

Further narrowing the universe of potentially receptive voters is what winning close campaigns is all about. "If you don't want raisins in your cereal," Grebner says, "buy cereal that doesn't have raisins-- don't pick them out one at a time."

PICKING WINNERS

It's not just a matter of picking out the right voters. The parties are also heavily engaged in picking the right candidates in races they consider winnable. Recruitment is nothing new to party leaders, of course, but the legislative caucuses are becoming more noticeably involved, even during the primary season.

A case in point is the traditionally Republican 13th Senate District in suburban Oakland County, north of Detroit. Former state Representative John Pappageorge recognizes that his bid for the seat is, as much as anything else, about maintaining GOP control of the chamber. "If we lose this seat and one or two others that are all on the bubble, then we will lose the majority in Lansing," he says. That's the reason Pappageorge, who is 75 and hasn't run for office in a decade, was willing to come out of political retirement to take on the challenge. State Senate Republicans were not happy with their two prospective candidates, including a state representative whom Pappageorge had already endorsed. They showed Pappageorge some polling data--and they showed him some money--and he said, "Duty calls--I've got to get in."

The 13th is competitive this year because of a confluence of factors. Republican Shirley Johnson, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, probably would have had no trouble winning reelection, but she's been forced out by term limits. That created an opening for Democrat Andy Levin, a 46-year-old rookie candidate with a storied political lineage. His father, Sander Levin, is a neighboring congressman, and his uncle, Carl Levin, is the longest serving U.S. senator in Michigan history.

Ari Adler, spokesman for state Senate Republicans, complains that Andy Levin has "last name I.D., not first name I.D," but the last name alone has helped enormously. Unlike most of the Democratic legislative challengers, Levin has been able to use his family connections and his own long career in union politics to tap a distinct network of donors. Even Republicans who scoff at the Democrats' chances of taking control of the Michigan Senate readily concede that Levin presents a real problem for them.

The struggle for legislative supremacy in Michigan isn't entirely a matter of tactics and technology. More than almost anywhere else this year, the frail condition of the economy serves as a backdrop to every campaign event that takes place. The jobs picture, still closely tied to manufacturing and the ailing auto industry, has been among the most dismal in America this year. In mid-August, Ford Motor Co. announced that it was cutting production by 21 percent. The day before that, the state's official unemployment rate reached 7 percent.

Republican legislative candidates tie the bad economic news to Jennifer Granholm, Michigan's incumbent Democratic governor. Democrats respond that the real problem in Michigan (aside from the Bush administration) is the policies of the Republican majority that has dominated the legislature for two decades. Republicans then counter that they have been unable to enact an economic recovery program because they lack the votes to override Granholm's vetoes. This endless round of mutual recrimination does nothing to increase voter enthusiasm, creating a further challenge for down-ballot candidates seeking to establish their own identities.

Andy Levin knows he can't win in the 13th District on the basis of partisan loyalties. The 13th remains a largely Republican district-- Granholm lost it even as she was winning statewide four years ago. She may well lose it again in 2006. "I'm going to have to run ahead of her," Levin says. He talks frequently about his support for stem-cell research, believing it's an issue that will attract the sort of socially moderate Republicans who are plentiful in this affluent suburban area.

Levin may be helped by demographic changes. Since 2000, Oakland County has lost 3 percent of its white population, while the number of African-American residents is up 23 percent. The district also has a larger concentration of Asians than the state as a whole. Although the district voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004, the Republican margin was down from four years earlier. "The Republicans keep moving north, and they're moving out of the district," says Marie Donigan, a Democratic state representative from the area.

In some ways, Levin is a new arrival himself: He moved his family to the district only in August after spending many years in Washington. Still, his name and money, coupled with the changing constituency, give Levin a chance. Whether he can win depends on the success of his sizable field operation and his own personal appeal as he spends hours every night knocking on doors. Senate districts in Michigan take in about 250,000 residents, meaning 90,000 may vote in a high-turnout year. Once you subtract those who are sure to vote for one party or another, you're down to 10,000 or so "persuadables," and these are the people who are finding themselves bombarded with carefully targeted mailings and automated robo-calls.

One irony that Levin and Pappageorge agree on is that, despite the $2 million or more that the two sides will manage to spend on this campaign, and despite all the sophisticated technology, the result is likely to turn on old-fashioned personal contact. "In a campaign," Pappageorge says, "everything that you do is a substitute for looking someone in the eye. That's what I do all day, is get in front of people and say, 'Here it is--decide.'"

REACH OUT AND TOUCH

Jerry Van Woerkom, knocking on doors six days a week in the 34th District to win reelection as a Senate Republican, also believes that his best hope lies in pressing the flesh. He's accustomed to doing that, and he's accustomed to winning tough contests. "The one thing I trust in at this point," he says, "is that people will view me for who I am, rather than lumping me in with politicians in general."

But like all candidates in close districts this year, Van Woerkom is also dependent to a significant degree on help from outside. As he makes his way through a condo complex up a short rise from the Pere Marquette beach, on the shores of Lake Michigan, a dozen volunteers are knocking on other doors throughout the 34th. Half of them work for other legislative offices, sent either by the Senate Republican leadership or by colleagues of Van Woerkom who want to be leaders themselves and hope to engender some gratitude should he manage to win reelection.

It's very much the same for Julie Dennis on the Democratic side. The day before she walked through North Muskegon with her Palm, 60 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers took the afternoon off from a conference to knock on 1,500 doors for her, using Grebner's computerized target list. Dennis' cell phone rings while she grabs lunch in the middle of the campaign day; it's a union representative wanting to check how much IBEW has already given her, so the union can make sure to max out at the legal limit of $10,000.

Dennis worries about all the outside voices. She believes that even well-intentioned help, such as recorded calls from Democratic celebrities on her behalf, could turn off voters who resent having their phones "weaponized." She finds herself debating with Democratic caucus officials about the way she is spending her personal time. Lansing strategists wanted her to appear at the party convention in Detroit, but that would have meant squandering the chance to greet 2,000 local voters and their families at the Roosevelt Park Day parade. This was one instruction she decided to refuse.

Dennis and Kerr, the campaign manager whom the Senate caucus imported from Lansing, also debate the wisdom of continuing to honor West Michigan's informal prohibition against campaigning on Sundays. For every person who might be offended, Kerr suggests, four or five might be swayed by personal contact with the candidate. "Votes are a volume business," she says.

Kerr harbors no pretense of special knowledge about the Muskegon district. During her first week on the job, she found herself continually asking directions to major local landmarks, such as the community college. But she doesn't think that makes any real difference. "Campaigns are the same everywhere," Kerr argues. "You have to contact voters and persuade the ones you're pretty sure are going to vote for you to turn out." She's right. It's just that the tools of contact and persuasion are now far more elaborate than they have ever been at this level of American politics.

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