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Beyond the data gathered on voters, the Democrats and Obama also have access to a network of willing volunteers who can be used to recontact voters. “They’ve got a whole volunteer structure that gathered all this information that can be put to used in the 2010 midterms, and can hopefully be available for a reelection [of Obama],” Franklin-Hodge says. “There is a tremendous amount of data mining and analysis that goes on within the party and political organization that allows a better understanding of how people vote and how they make decisions.”

This approach–“microtargeting” voters based on their feelings toward specific issues–was once the domain of the Republican National Committee. But even leading Republican figures now acknowledge that the days of GOP voter-data dominance have ended. “For decades, the RNC has had a significant advantage in their voter file, and in their ability to identify and turn out voters,” says Mike Connell, founder of New Media Communications, an Ohio-based Republican new-media firm. “With the Obama campaign and the efforts over the last couple of years, [the Democrats] have made significant strides and have caught up.”

A key reason for the DNC’s data advance was a decision by DNC chairman Howard Dean to improve data sharing among Democratic organizations at the state level. “Four years ago, Howard Dean ‘got it,’” Connell says. “Not a lot of people give him credit, but he made a transformation.”

Since then, the DNC and VAN have steadily improved the database interfaces. This year, the newest tool in the arsenal was a Google Maps application developed by VAN that makes it far easier to chop up lists of voters in specific precincts for canvassers to personally visit. In the new application, called “turf-cutter,” voters’ homes are displayed as icons on a map. A few clicks of a mouse allow organizers to draw boundaries around clusters of voters’ homes and print out the resulting list for volunteers.

In the past two months, Sullivan says, activists from all Democratic campaigns have used this application 948,000 times, saving thousands of hours of man power, compared to manually figuring out how best to chop up a given district and dispatch volunteers in the most efficient manner. “Probably, on average, for each precinct, they would work with maps and highlighters,” says Sullivan. “I hear all the time, ‘That was a 45-minute job,’ and now they go in here and it takes a minute or two. It was the biggest bottleneck.”

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Credit: Technology Review
Video by David Talbot

Tagged: Computing, Web, election, Barack Obama, database systems, data integration

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