All the President's programmers: The computer is now an essential weapon in the battle for the White House. Paul Simons examines how its power is being harnessed

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The Independent Online
IN THESE final rounds of the American presidential campaign, all sides are throwing their ultimate weapon into battle - the computer. Large computer databases provide the ammunition for mud-slinging, as well as helping to shape campaign policy and winkle out the donations that the campaigns feed on voraciously. Computer power has been pervading politics and its influence has not always been benign.

Negative campaigning

Computers are ideal for dirty campaigns. President George Bush has used them to devastating effect. In his last campaign, everything that Michael Dukakis had ever said or done politically since college was recorded on computer. Ed Rollins, campaign organiser for Ronald Reagan, Mr Bush and formerly for Ross Perot, says: 'If a candidate spoke on an issue we would very quickly be able to find out what that candidate ever said on that issue.'

The results were impressive. Within 15 minutes of Mr Dukakis making a public statement, the Republicans had dredged up apparent contradictions from his past. For instance, when Mr Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, claimed he was the candidate of the environment, Bush appeared the same day on a boat in Boston harbour on Mr Dukakis's back door, claiming it was one of the most polluted waters in the United States.

But the tables have now been turned. The Democrats have learnt their lesson and now respond within an hour to each Bush attack. When Mr Bush attacked Bill Clinton's apparent poor record in office as governor of Arkansas, the Democrats replied with their own positive statistics about Arkansas and compared those with the President's own poor national record.

These negative campaign tactics have made candidates much more cautious about their public pronouncements, suggests Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia. 'They will take great care to avoid any chance that in the future they will contradict themselves. That will encourage them to be more bland, to be even duller than they have been in the past.'

Computer targeting

The political parties' most sophisticated and some would say most worrying computer operation, as it raises questions of privacy, is directed at the voters themselves. Nearly every American voter is now listed on commercially- available computer tapes, categorised according to race, interests, religion, income and likely politics. Computer tapes can provide the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of millions of individual American voters listed by their social and economic background. For example, 'Your Gateway to the Affluent Black Market' is a list of 115,000 names, addresses and telephone numbers of black business executives across America, all yours for several thousand dollars.

Campaign managers find this sort of intelligence data extremely useful. American campaigns are expensive. The Republicans raised dollars 25m on the last presidential campaign, but by law no individual donor can give more than dollars 1,000. So the political parties desperately hunt for likely new contributors outside the party faithful from dozens of commercial computer lists.

Banks of telephone operators call on targeted voters for support, reading from scripts based on background information from the computer lists. Then each call is logged into the computer and filed for future use.

Alternatively, letters for millions of prospective donors, or undecided voters, can be produced by computers. The messages are again tailored to a person's social and cultural background: a wealthy voter will get a pledge on low taxes, for example.

So the first time, a candidate really can be all things to all men, thanks to the computer.

But the power of the computer has now gone further. Companies are processing information taken from more than 100 different commercially available computer lists. From that they can build up portraits of neighbourhoods anywhere in the country. Simply pick your location and zoom into the local precinct, even down to a block. Or using a postcode, the wealthy neighbourhood can be sorted from the less well- off, the well-educated from the illiterate, the black from the white, and so on. With all that information you start building up a good idea of what sort of politics your voters have. So by cross referencing voter registration lists with census data you could target mail to specific ethnic and age groups.

Campaign policy

The days of the whistle-stop tour, with speeches made from the backs of trains, are numbered. In today's campaign computers give the candidates direct access to almost every home and to each voter by name. This emphasis on gaining the support of the maximum number of particular individuals and social groups, which computer targeting makes possible, encourages candidates to shy away from difficult issues which could alienate particular voters. Policy is dictated not by a politician's convictions or party philosophy but by the need to avoid giving offence to the voters being wooed and analysed using the sophisticated technology.

The politicians become guided by the reaction of these individuals and groups as gauged by the opinion polls: they follow the followers. This leads to a content-free campaign: the polls tell you what not to say but not what to say.

Focus groups

The epitome of how computers have influenced election campaigning is the use of focus groups. These usually comprise 10 to 15 individuals marshalled by a trained discussion leader. The individuals are drawn from predetermined population subgroups. They can register their reactions to a debate or advert while the event is in progress, using individual dial boxes to indicate whether they agree or disagree with what they are seeing. Their collective judgement is instantaneously computed and transmitted on to a television screen in the form of a continuous graph.

Never has opinion research so graphically portrayed or so quickly registered voters' political reflexes. So when Mr Bush first uttered his immortal line 'No more taxes' in his last campaign, the results from pulse-reading showed such overwhelming approval from voters across the country that it became the 1988 Republican battlecry.

This presidential campaign has made more use of focus groups than ever before. The political parties are trying out their campaign themes, literature, adverts and much else before launching them publicly. For example, in the third televised candidates' debate, Mr Bush raised old fears about the Democrats by referring to the Carter administration. It is widely believed that a focus group tested that theme before Bush used it in the debate.

But how much will all these computer techinques affect the ultimate outcome of the presidential contest? Probably not a lot. So long as both major parties run their computer systems at roughly par with each other, neither scores an unfair technological advantage from them. An imbalance in the use of technology was one reasons for the hopeless performances of the Democrats over the past 12 years. But now things are different, and the Democrats have run their first truly sophisticated national campaign. That has helped them to maintain their wide lead in the opinion polls, although it will not win the election outright for them.

Britain

British political campaigning, too, is hardly untouched by the rise of computer technology. Richard Whirthlin, organiser for the first Reagan campaign, flew over to talk to Conservative Party officials before the last general election. Although many of the techniques, such as phone canvassing for campaign funds, work well only in the US, some have been imported into Britain. Focus groups and direct mailing, for instance, have been used by all Britain's main political parties.

(Photograph omitted)

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