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California shoppers, Schwarzenegger is watching you

AP | October 26 2006

Gin or vodka? Ford or BMW? Perrier or Fiji water? Does the car you buy or what's in your fridge say anything about how you'll vote?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign thinks so.

Employing technology honed in President Bush's 2004 victory, the Republican governor's re-election team has created a vast computer storehouse of data on personal buying habits and voter records to identify likely supporters. Campaign officials say the operation is the largest of its kind in any state, at any time.

Some strategists believe consumer information can reveal a voter's politics even better than a party label can.

"It's not where they live, it's how they live," said Josh Ginsberg, the Schwarzenegger campaign's deputy political director.

The idea is an outgrowth of techniques that businesses have long used to find new customers. Using publicly available data, the Bush campaign in 2004 knew voters' favorite vacation spots, religious leanings, the music and magazines they liked, the cars they drove.

Few people might realize how much information is publicly available, for a price, about their lifestyles. Companies collect and sell consumer information they buy from credit card companies, airlines and retailers of every stripe.

Using microtargeting, as the practice is known, Bush's campaign teased out supporters in swing states such as Ohio. Schwarzenegger -- whose political operation is run by two Bush veterans, campaign manager Steve Schmidt and strategist Matthew Dowd -- is ripping a page from that book.

The governor appears headed for victory, and campaign officials already credit the system with driving up support.

Republicans also hope microtargeting will drive up turnout in states with tight congressional races.

Similarly, a coalition of unions and other left-leaning groups called America Votes is using consumer records to help find Democratic supporters in several states. The Democratic National Committee is employing consumer data to try to boost turnout.

The California Democratic Party -- which heads the statewide turnout operation for Schwarzenegger's rival, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, and other party candidates -- has been gathering consumer information as well.

But Schwarzenegger and national Republicans appear to be making more elaborate use of such data.

Angelides campaign manager Cathy Calfo charged that the governor's camp is "using it as a system to manipulate people and allow a candidate that has no specific message to tell different people different things."

Moreover, some argue that analysis of consumer preferences is overrated when voters are focused on issues such as the Iraq war.

"No amount of microtargeting is going to save Republicans," said California Democratic Party adviser Bob Mulholland.

Schwarzenegger's turnout operation is bankrolled with up to $25 million and staffed by 60 people backed by volunteers. The microtargeting is central to the operation.

The Schwarzenegger campaign has stockpiled millions of names, phone numbers and addresses with consumer preferences, voting histories and other demographic information. The information allows the campaign to target a household with phone calls, mailings and visits from volunteers, with the message tailored to issues the resident is believed to care about.

In simplest terms: A homeowner who drives a Volvo, reads The New Yorker and shops at Whole Foods Market is likely to lean Democratic. A pickup driver with a hunting or fishing license who reads Time magazine probably leans right.

"For a long time in California, the thesis has been that television advertising by itself drives voter turnout. That, in fact, is not the case," Schmidt said. "What drives voters is person-to-person contact."


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