Machined Politics: How the Internet Is Really, Truly-Seriously!-Going to Change Elections

By Thompson, Nicholas | The Washington Monthly, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Machined Politics: How the Internet Is Really, Truly-Seriously!-Going to Change Elections


Thompson, Nicholas, The Washington Monthly


WITH CONTROL OF THE HOUSE and Senate hanging in the balance, every pundit, politico, and poli-sci professor has a theory on which party will win in November's elections. Opposition parties always gain in midterm elections, Republicans could ride Bush's coattails, Enron could swing the country to the Democrats.

Although these issues matter, close elections often hinge on a much less sexy factor: which party does a better job of getting out the vote. After all, when the polls open, policies don't vote. People do.

So if you want a sense of who will win, pay less attention to pundits and more to what actually drives people to the polls, especially one overlooked factor that has fallen short in the past: the Internet. As several recent primary elections demonstrate, smart campaigns have discovered that the Internet can serve as an amazingly powerful tool to help integrate a candidate's field operations, organize volunteers, and get out the vote.

Consider Illinois' hotly contested Democratic gubernatorial primary this March, in which Chicago congressman Rod Blagojevich engineered a narrow victory. His campaign set up 350 "indicator precincts" across the state, from which campaign workers reported voter turnout to headquarters by dialing an 800-number at prearranged times throughout the day. These numbers were immediately posted to a Web site for staffers in Blagojevich's campaign headquarters to download and analyze. If turnout was low in a county they expected to win, the campaign used email and phones to get more volunteers to knock on doors and contact likely voters, and even to plant popular supporters on local radio stations. "In Rock Island County, we showed their turnout to be very light early on," says Pete Giangreco, a consultant to the campaign. "So we turned our people there and not only got 69 percent of the vote, but we got a higher turnout there than in the last election."

Theoretically, the campaign could have done the same sort of compiling before the Internet, with pen, paper, and calculators. It just would have taken several days--by which time their candidate would have been home eating cold soup.

Blagojevich also boosted turnout with what Giangreco calls "Web-based predictive dialing systems." On Election Day, campaign workers strapped on their headsets, logged into a Web-based voter database, and let the computer automatically dial the numbers of likely supporters who had missed voting in at least one recent election and might choose to sleep through this one, too--data that the campaign had methodically culled from public records and private contractors and entered into its online database. "Usually a volunteer on their own with a manual phone can make between 10 and 12 contacts an hour," says Giangreco. "With a Web-based predictive dialer, that almost doubles" The campaign's net-savvy approach paid off. Blagojevich eked out a 3-percentage-point victory.

In a way, what Blagojevich did mirrored the work of one of his Chicago predecessors, Richard J. Daley. The notorious mayor and his cronies won by organizing precinct captains to corral votes, while Daley maintained a giant stack of note cards in order to remember who supported him (and thus might deserve patronage jobs) and who did not. According to one biography of Daley, a ward committeeman once stormed out of a meeting with the words, "For God's sake, you wonder how he can run the city, keeping all that shit about how many jobs you've got in his head."

Though the patronage system is dead, today's smart candidates are rediscovering the art of voter contact. They've simply traded in notecards for giant Web-based databases, and swapped arm-twisting for hyperefficient, electronic back-office operations. For savvy candidates, the Internet has become the new political machine.

Promises, Promises

Until recently, the most notable thing about the Internet's much-heralded effect on politics has been its failure to live up to its billing. …

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