A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
What we describe in One Party Country is how Lee Atwater saw a particular opportunity for Republicans. Atwater realized that, if you were going to have to redraw district boundaries in such a way that you could guarantee minorities would be represented, their surrounding, contiguous districts would lose the benefit of that core Democratic vote. The nearby districts would become, in a sense, whiter and more Republican. So you could elect an additional minority member to Congress, but you might get two or three Republican members in districts that used to have a sufficient number of Democratic minority voters to elect Democrats.-- Tom Hamburger, Co-Author of One Party Country
"One Party Country:The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century" is a must read for anyone who wants to fully understand the strengths of the GOP in the mechanics of maintaining party dominance -- that is to say, in addition to outright stealing elections. Written by two Los Angeles Times reporters, it dispassionately details the Republican Party/Rove infrastructure for putting in place institutional and strategic obstacles that make it extremely difficult for Democrats to return to power in any branch of the national government. One area of keen interest for BuzzFlash in "One Party Country" is the means by which the GOP has been able to "microtarget" voters through the creation of a massive data base, not unlike -- we guess -- the one assembled by the NSA. For all we know, ChoicePoint (the GOP/Bush data mining firm that was responsible for the infamous Florida voter "felon's purge" in 2000) is behind both tht NSA data mining and the GOP data mining "vault." Nonetheless, microtargeting has been a key tool in boosting GOP voter turnout. It is used both for positive and seedy pitches to voters, appealing to both policy issues and the basest of emotional manipulation. With the decline of the Democratic urban "precinct" voter base, technology has become an increasingly important election tool. The Republicans, who are the party of marketing triumphing over substance, know the tricks of the trade.
* * *
BuzzFlash: You have a new book, One Party Country: The Republican Plan For Dominance in the 21st Century, which you wrote with your fellow journalist from the Los Angeles Times, Peter Wallsten. It looks at an array of Republican strategies towards achieving a one-party America. We want to focus in this BuzzFlash interview on the technology that the Republican Party has mastered. In particular, can you explain what microtargeting is?
Tom Hamburger: Microtargeting is a technique used in commercial marketing as well as political campaigns to identify very narrow niches of interest. It’s also known as niche marketing. It refers to the careful, very specific targeting of individuals -- in this case, voters -- by special interests, buying habits, and demographics. The Republican Party has made exceptionally good use of this technique, employing it very aggressively in 2004 in battleground states like Ohio and New Mexico. We make the case that microtargeting and the use of very sophisticated databases explains the Republican edge in those states, and thus even explains the results of the 2004 election.
BuzzFlash: You give some very interesting examples in One Party Country. You actually introduce us to some people who have been microtargeted. Maybe you could talk a little about them -- and the fact that, for the GOP, this is seen as an investment in the future. There’s an African-American woman from suburban Ohio.
Tom Hamburger: Felicia Hill lives outside of Dayton, and she’s married to a UAW union auto worker. She's a registered Democrat who has traditionally voted for Democratic presidential candidates. In the rule book by which politics is traditionally played, she would not be a target for Republican Party mobilization. She simply wouldn’t be on the list of people who were likely to vote Republican. But, thanks to this database, which the Republicans call Voter Vault, the Republican party activists in Ohio had some detailed information about Felicia Hill. Though she was in a Democratic precinct, had voted in Democratic primaries in the past, and was an African-American woman married to an auto worker, they knew she also sends her children to private schools. She’s a member of a conservative Evangelical church. She is a member of a golf club and subscribes to golfing magazines.
These accumulated interests were known to Republicans who were actively engaged in an African-American outreach effort in Ohio in 2004. And so Felicia Hill, for the first time during this campaign, found herself the recipient of a multitude of Republican Party entreaties, many of them personal telephone calls inviting her to specific events. Some were mailers that appealed to her special interests. Because she sends her kids to private schools, for example, she is interested in school vouchers -- and that’s an issue the Republicans are talking a lot about, the Democrats not so much. She told us she found herself subtly feeling for the first time that the Republican Party was a place where she could feel at home.
Now, ultimately, she went to the ballot box in 2004 and cast her vote for John Kerry. But Republicans viewed this outreach to Felicia Hill and others like her in Ohio and other states as a victory nonetheless, because she is now open to the Republican Party and to Republican Party ideas.
There are a couple of lessons in this for Democrats and for those who are interested in how things are evolving politically. One of them is to look at how this Republican Party investment over the preceding decade might reap success in the long term. They’re in this for the long haul. If you didn’t get Felicia Hill in 2004 -- well, maybe in 2006 or maybe in 2008. And they now have a way to reach her.
BuzzFlash: Did she, in that period, receive an equal number of entreaties, either over the phone or in the mail, from the Democrats?
Tom Hamburger: She did receive Democratic Party mailings and local calls, but she really felt that she was bombarded -- I think was the phrase she used to us -- with the Republican message, and was at times, kind of even overwhelmed by it, but also interested in it. She had a personal invitation to be part of the audience when Bush or Cheney were visiting Dayton, and the personal nature of it made a huge difference to her. She described going to some of these events, and finding, to her surprise, as she put it, "there were people just like me who had my values, my concerns" at some of these rallies. One of the things that we observed in the case of Felicia Hill and others who were in her circumstances is that they were on the mobilization plan. The Republicans outdo the Democrats in this voter mobilization. Of course, that was remarkable to us, because traditionally voter mobilization is an area where Democrats have reigned supreme.
BuzzFlash: Is this because the Republicans understand marketing better, and marketing today is built on data mining to a great degree?
Tom Hamburger: I think that’s part of the explanation, but it’s very important to note here also that it was the Democrats, until the last few years, who were leading in this effort, even on the technology side. So I wanted to make both these points. One is that the Republicans do historically have an advantage, in sort of taking and using Madison Avenue business marketing techniques and deploying them. Tracking polls, for example, were invented on Madison Avenue by an executive who was working for a coffee company and who wanted to track how well coffee ads were doing. Then they were adopted into a Republican campaign, and, of course, they’re now part of the staple of American campaigning.
But, in fact, the targeting of individual voters, developing precinct maps using the computer, was something that labor unions and Democratic party activists really pioneered. A former AFL-CIO political director, Steve Rosenthal, made a very effective use of voter files and databases. The work that he did in 1996 and 1998 was so successful it got the attention of a couple of Republican party operatives, one of whom is Ken Mehlman, the RNC Chairman. Mehlman described to us having looked at the Democrats' successful use of voter files and niche marketing in ’96 and ’98 and saying, we’ve got to learn how to do this. What happened is they deployed all of the advantages of modern marketing -- the financial advantages which the Republicans had -- and they outdid the Democrats in this area.
BuzzFlash: Right now, there is a split in the Democratic leadership about this whole issue. In the Hillary Clinton camp there's Harold Ickes, who is putting together his own database because he feels that Howard Dean is not doing it quickly and thoroughly enough at the DNC. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Tom Hamburger: Yes. We’re interested in that, and we're following it closely. In the book, we argue that the Republicans have successfully put together a series of structural and strategic advantages that give them an edge. And if you’re an evenly divided nation, if you have this edge, you’re going to win more elections than you lose. Democrats are starting to catch on to these Republican advantages.
There’s a strong belief among some in the Democratic Party -- you mentioned Harold Ickes, and some others were associated with Terry McAuliffe in the era when he ran the DNC -- that the party should really be investing aggressively in this database technology. Howard Dean has acknowledged this and said, yes, we’re going to invest in this. But we’re also at the same time going to invest our resources in the "fifty-state" strategy, putting organizers on the ground in all fifty states. A dispute has emerged about how effectively the resources are being divided up.
We describe some of this in the book's epilogue. Harold Ickes, Laura Quinn, and others, some of who are associated with Hillary Clinton, some not, have started their own independent effort to develop a sophisticated voter file.
The concern that some Democrats have is that a private database does not have the same kind of power as the Republicans’ centralized Voter Vault, where all fifty state parties are basically feeding data into one centralized file. You know, when you accumulate data, the more data you have, the more it’s centralized, the more powerful it is.
BuzzFlash: The Republicans tend to be very hierarchical. Therefore everything kind of feeds from the bottom to the top, and then goes back down. In the Democratic Party, of course, Democrats being Democrats, things tend to be more horizontal.
Tom Hamburger: Or as Will Rogers famously said, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
BuzzFlash: The Democrats have got two databases going.
Tom Hamburger: Well, more than that. We should also acknowledge that there’s a dispute about just how valuable it is. A political scientist at Yale has said the numbers just aren’t there to show that this is as effective as some have argued. But if you believe that it’s effective, then this is an area where the Republican tradition of top-down discipline that you talked about -- building databases centrally, maintaining them over time -- creates an enormous advantage. This may be a significant edge that the Republicans have developed. It will be hard, given the nature of the Democratic Party, to compete. Hard, but, at least in our view, not impossible.
BuzzFlash: You also bring up the idea of the effectiveness of targeted phone calls -- even the automatic ones, the recorded ones. Let’s just say hypothetically that they could call someone, who, because of certain codes that they’ve run through the database, they know is very opposed to gay marriage. They could do telephone calling that says, "Do you know the opponent of Bob Jones is one of the biggest supporters in our state of gay marriage?" They could do that type of phone calling based on this sort of niche targeting.
Tom Hamburger: Yes. And in some cases it may be a sort of push polling, which kind of pushes the boundaries of ethics in some cases, where you call up and suggest something that may or may not be true, or evokes a very strong response from a voter.
BuzzFlash: It was documented that this was done in the South Carolina primary in 2000 against John McCain on two issues. One suggested that he had illegitimately fathered a black child and the other had to do with besmirching his Vietnam war record. I assume that those calls were made to people based on some data mining.
Tom Hamburger: I don’t know the specifics of the South Carolina case. The point that we make about microtargeting is that, really even in routine campaigning, even of the most ethical sort, it’s an advantage that the Republicans now enjoy.
We found in Ohio, for example, that the issue of gay marriage was used to draw some traditionally Democratic voters to the Republican side. Polling told the Republican strategists in Ohio that members of certain Evangelical, charismatic churches were strongly opposed to gay marriage, along with certain black and latino voters, and they were supportive of initiatives that would restrict gay marriage. There were ways -- legitimate, as far as I know -- to identify those people and get messages to them saying if you are concerned about what’s happening to marriage, or about gay marriage, this is the Republican Party position, and we hope you vote Republican. In Ohio, Bush’s percentage of the black vote moved from 9% in 2000 to 16% in 2004. The raw number increase of votes there that he received gave him the margin to win Ohio comfortably without the sort of contentious battle over votes that occurred in Florida in 2000.
BuzzFlash: Well, I just would have to say that many of our readers feel that the Ohio issue is far from settled in terms of the conduct and counting of the 2004 vote. But that aside, the placement of initiatives like gay marriage on the ballot is something the Republicans have also been very good at -- thinking ahead strategically. Getting something like that on as a ballot initiative clearly drives their voters to the voting booth. Someone who might stay home might go and vote just because they feel strongly about that issue. Then they’ll vote Republican down the line.
Tom Hamburger: Yes. One of the areas where Democrats are starting to compete, as you know, is also looking for ballot opportunities that will draw Democrats to the polls. There’s some hope in 2006 that the minimum wage initiatives will do that.
BuzzFlash: Because we are offering One Party Country as a premium on our site, I should also make it clear that the book explores many other areas than just the microtargeting technology. The Republican Party and strategists like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist are trying to make this a one party country by building an array of institutional obstacles that almost make it impossible for the Democrats to reassume any power in any branch of government. Is that fair to say?
Tom Hamburger: I think that’s a good description. And it's true that the book is only in part about the niche marketing advantage. That’s just one of our nine chapters. There’s a long list of advantages that the Republicans have put in place in the hope of creating the kind of realignment that they believe the Democrats enjoyed after the New Deal.
BuzzFlash: The reason we’re focusing on it in this interview is that it’s not a topic we’ve talked a lot about on our site. Also, I think it's not a topic that Democrats understand a lot -- how much of an advantage the Republicans have developed on the technology side.
But I do want to ask how that plays itself out on election day. We’ve seen the decline of the urban Democratic precinct organization, as more people move to the suburbs and growth cities in the South and West where it is almost non-existent. As you discuss, labor used to be much more important, but over the last fifty years the power of television in terms of elections has become huge. In many ways, we have an executive branch that rules by television at this point in time. That’s our opinion. I’m not saying it’s yours. In either party, that’s how they communicate with the American public. That’s how people know a president or a presidential candidate.
And the Republicans have moved very quickly in this century to take advantage of the data mining technology. How does that play itself out on election day when you’re talking about a get-out-the-vote drive? It used to be that the Democratic precinct captain would actually escort senior citizens to the polls and so forth. In your book, you claim the Republicans have the advantage in getting out the vote now.
Tom Hamburger: Well, it’s a new advantage, as you’re suggesting. I would argue that even until the most recent cycles, the Democrats had the advantage to the point that it was a truism that if you had high voter turnout, it meant the Democrats were going to win, simply because the Democrats had the foot soldiers through organized labor and the precinct captains. We think that voter mobilization advantage has flipped -- at least it did in 2004, which my co-author, Peter Wallsten, and I think is the most sophisticated presidential campaign we ever observed. And one of the reasons that it flipped is that the Republicans have mastered this niche marketing -- the ability to identify and reach out to voters, wherever they might reside, who might be inclined to vote Republican.
One of the things that it meant traditionally was Democrats would concentrate on, let's say, Cleveland and the urban precincts, where their core Democratic voters were. Republicans would let go of that area and concentrate on the exurbs and rural counties, where they were best. This time the Republicans used this sort of open new technology -- the database and electronic as well as personal and mobile cell communications -- to find voters who might be unaffiliated or might be moved to the Republican cause based on a narrow issue.
What’s new, we found, is that some demographic shifts are taking place, and some ideological shifts are taking place. The party that has the best sense of these shifts, and does the best job of tracking the interests and even the buying patterns of voters in a closely fought election -- that party is more likely to win.
BuzzFlash: You have a chapter called “Stacking the Electoral Deck.” Can you just talk a little about that chapter?
Tom Hamburger: That chapter is dedicated to redistricting. It examines the history of a long Republican effort to tilt the electoral landscape to the Republicans’ advantage. Gerrymandering, as you well know, is as old as the republic -- that is, the party that’s in charge will draw district boundaries to their benefit. What we describe in One Party Country is how Lee Atwater saw a particular opportunity for Republicans. Atwater realized that, if you were going to have to redraw district boundaries in such a way that you could guarantee minorities would be represented, their surrounding, contiguous districts would lose the benefit of that core Democratic vote. The nearby districts would become, in a sense, whiter and more Republican. So you could elect an additional minority member to Congress, but you might get two or three Republican members in districts that used to have a sufficient number of Democratic minority voters to elect Democrats.
This changed not only the complexion of Congress, increasing the number of minority members of Congress, but it also led to a quite significant increase in the number of Republicans who were elected. Atwater’s theory was that a below-the-radar campaign of Republicans aligning with minority activists, in states like Florida, Georgia, California, New York, and Michigan, could actually provide Republicans with an enduring advantage in drawing of district lines -- an advantage that could survive even an era in which the Democrats resume control of the state houses and state legislatures that are responsible for drawing the lines.
I can offer you an example of that that is occurring right now in North Carolina, where the Democrats are in control. There is a famous court decision which allowed Congressional district boundaries to be redrawn, even outside of the traditional ten-year census requirement [generally thought to favor Republicans]. But in North Carolina, a group of Democratic Party legislators have found a way to redraw the map that would likely give them at least one additional seat. Yet there are objections to this plan from a minority congressman in North Carolina, because this person's district might be diluted in terms of minority voters. So it's difficult for Democrats, even when they regain control of state houses and the governor’s office, to redraw the map in a way that would create the largest number of Democratic Party seats, because there is an inherent conflict between the interests of some of the minority members and those who might like to draw maps in such a way that you’d have the largest number of Democratic seats.
BuzzFlash: Tom, thank you for a very informative book that explains a lot about the Republican edge in recent elections.
Tom Hamburger: Good to talk with you.
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
* * *
One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century, by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, a BuzzFlash premium.
How the GOP Plans to Win, by Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger, StarTribune.com.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW