updated 9/18/2006 4:14:41 PM ET 2006-09-18T20:14:41

A sophisticated and previously unrevealed experiment by Democratic interest groups could provide Democratic candidates in as many as nine states with an unanticipated edge in the November elections.

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America Votes, a roundtable of the nation's top liberal membership groups, is coordinating a multimillion-dollar program to boost Democratic turnout using the same voter modeling method mastered by Republicans in 2004.

"The goal here is to once again bring 'field' into the column of the progressive community," said Jano Cabrera, a senior adviser to the project.

Amassing the data
EMILY's List, which raises money to help elect Democratic women, is in the catbird seat for two states: Michigan and Minnesota, both of which feature competitive gubernatorial and senate races. Other members of America Votes plan to employ the project in Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And so-called "robust" voter lists will also be provided to program members in Arizona, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

Catalist, a private information firm founded by veteran Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, is providing the raw data. The firm has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to add demographic and commercial data to entries for each voter, often purchasing the information from information vendors.

In Michigan, EMILY's List asked Garin Hart Yang, a Democratic polling firm, to survey more than 12,000 Michigan voters with an in-depth battery of lifestyle and issue questions. From the massive poll, EMILY's List and Garin Hart Yang were able to profile distinct clusters of voters. These groups were then given names like Educated Postgraduate Democrats or Downscale Union Independents. Each cluster was scored for how likely it'd support Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, their affinity toward the Democratic Party and the likelihood they will vote.

Then, using reams of the appended demographic data, each of more than 6.7 million names on the statewide voter file was given a score that corresponded to the clusters they most closely matched. Based on the cluster score, voters will be targeted with precise appeals. The project aims to increase turnout statewide, not just in traditionally Democratic counties like Wayne, but in heavily conservative areas of Western Michigan, and Oakland and Macomb counties in the east.

From midterms to 2008
If the state modeling projects work, America Votes hopes to set up a similar effort in every battleground state in 2008. Officials at Catalist, America Votes and EMILY's List will unveil the program to major Democratic donors. Similar efforts are under way at the Democratic National Committee, which has spent more than $6 million to craft robust voter files for state parties, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has modeled clusters of voters in its targeted states, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In 2005, the DNC worked with the Virginia Democratic Party, then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's gubernatorial campaign and a private firm called Copernicus Analytics to identify Democrats who had voted for Sen. John Kerry in 2004 but not for then-Gov. Mark Warner in 2001. Kaine saw his turnout increase more than 40 percent among those so-called drop-off voters. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's re-election campaign has employed the same microtargeting firm, Copernicus Analytics, to help them find new voters in New York.

The impulse to find new ways to flush voters to the polls was midwifed from the party's failure in 2004. Democrats and their allies spent more than $100 million to turn out a record number of voters in areas with high concentrations of Democratic voters. It worked, but Republican targets were far higher. The Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign had pioneered several new technique for tunneling to their voters. One, dubbed microtargeting, allowed them to find hidden warrens of Bush voters in Democratic precincts. It also predicted the best way to send persuasive messages to those voters.

"While there used to be a time when progressives could feel secure in having a field advantage over conservatives that came to an abrupt end in November 2004," said Cabrera.

Catching up is hard to do
Some Democrats worry that the Republican National Committee is cycles ahead of the Democratic Party in using the technology, and they fear that the Democratic National Committee's efforts to catch up are underfunded and proceeding too slowly. Also, dozens of outside Democratic groups have worked for years with voter and membership lists dubbed "dirty," meaning they were out of date and not dynamic. Ickes, the deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, started the Data Warehouse in part to help these outside groups. Laura Quinn, who ran the DNC's database in 2004, became its president. America Votes became its first client; the two share an office in Washington. Last week, Data Warehouse changed its name to Catalist.

The Republican machine is massive. The party will use an enhanced version of micro targeting and voter persuasion programs in every contested House race in the country. For months, state parties have been adding and updating identified voters to their centralized database, called Voter Vault. In several states, the number of identifiable voter clusters exceeds 40. More than 200,000 volunteers will make telephone calls and knock on doors on election day.

Told about the Michigan program, one senior Republican party official said he wasn't worried. "We've been doing this for years. They're just starting."

And Rep. Tom Cole, who is coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that no matter what Democrats or allies do, "We'll clearly enjoy a significant resource advantage over our counterparts."

Marc Ambinder is associate editor of The Hotline .


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