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CAPITOL OPWEASIE Will Democrats Get on Target? BY DAVE-MANN Hardly anyone gave Donna Howard much of a chance. After all, she was a Democrat running . in Texas House District 48an area that hasn’t been friendly to Democrats in recent elections. The district covers a wealthy, largely Anglo swath of West Austin, stretching into the city’s burgeoning suburbs. The residents live in large houses, drive large cars, and, by a roughly 57 percent majority, vote Republican. Todd Baxter, a GOP backbencher with few legislative accomplishments, managed to beat well-funded Democratic candidates in 2002 and 2004. So when Baxter suddenly resigned from the Legislature in fall 2005, many Texas political observers expected the GOP to retain the seat in a special election. Howard, a progressive Democrat, former nurse, and public school activist, entered the special election as a first-time candidate with scant campaign money and even less name ID. Facing another Democrat and an experienced Republican in a GOP district, Howard was a major underdog. Yet on Election Day, January 17, 2006, Howard trounced the field, winning 49.5 percent in the four-way race. Alarmed by the result, the Texas GOP establishment mobilized for the runoff election a month later. Checks rolled in to Republican Ben Bentzin’s campaign from the biggest conservative donors in Texas. He nearly doubled Howard’s fundraising total. Yet in the runoff, Howard thumped Bentzin again, earning a remarkable 58 percent of the vote in the GOP-leaning district. How did she do it? The Texas political chattering class attributed Howard’s surprising success to anti-Republican, anti-incumbent anger among voters. But Howard’s upset may contain another important lesson for Democrats in Texas and around the nation about how modern campaigns must be waged. Howard didn’t just craft a winning message; her campaign identified and targeted exactly which voters would be most receptive to her appeals. To do that, the Howard team tapped into the latest high-tech tool in political campaigns: voter targeting, also known as data mining. The premise is simple: In modern politics, candidates for public office are products that must be sold to voters. As in any corporate marketing campaign, it helps immensely to know who the consumers are. In data mining, a campaign adopts the techniques of corporate marketing to compile as much personal and demographic information about as many voters as possible. Voter targeting takes into account everything from which primaries you’ve voted in, to your marriage status, to how long you commute to work, to how often you use FedEx. Each bit of information yields a clue about a voter and voting tendencies. The campaign runs this information 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 8, 2006 through a series of complex, computer-driven statistical analyses. The end result is a surprisingly accurate portrait of who lives in the district, which voters the campaign should pitch to, and how to reach them in a media-saturated culture. Republicans have used these techniques in recent election cycles to successfully target and turn out conservative religious voters. Democrats in Texas, however, have been slow to catch on. Yet the Democratic Party’s biggest successes in Statehouse races the past two yearsMark Strama in Austin, Hubert Vo in Houston, David Leibowitz in San Antonio, and Howardall used data mining to some degree. Not everyone is enamored with the technique. Some of the top Democratic consultants and campaign contributors in Texas believe the effects of voter targeting are overblown, just hype generated by a handful of self-promoters that distracts from more important elements of campaigning. A debate has begun within the party about the effectiveness of targeting voters in small legislative races. In particular, the influential Texas Trial Lawyers Association, the deepest well for Democratic campaign money, has generally refused to provide major support to campaigns that use data mining. Howard, for instance, received hardly any money from trial lawyers in her race. The result is that voter targeting has been slow to gain traction among Democratic candidates. Only about a dozen around the state are using targeting this election cycle. “We make decisions on funding campaigns based on their viabilitythe candidate, the district, the message, and the competence of the campaign team,” says Russ Tidwell, political director for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. “There’s a danger of candidates being sold snake oilthey think something is a magic elixir, and it’s nothing of the sort. And it gets them off the other campaign fundamentals. That’s why we’re wary of things like this. You need a good candidate, with a good message, talking to a lot of voters:’ Tidwell and other critics in the Democratic Party argue that voter targeting segments the electorate too much. They charge that tailoring specific messages for certain groups of voters denigrates the debate in campaigns and risks over-reliance on one piece of technology. “One new, sophisticated tool is not a panacea,” Tidwell says. Even the biggest proponents of voter targeting concede it wasn’t the exclusive reason for Howard’s victoryher policy ideas, a message that appealed to a frustrated electorate, and mistakes by Bentzin were all important factors. But could Howard have won without voter targeting? “No,” says her campaign consultant, Kelly Fero, “because we would have had to campaign in a more general sense instead of specifically targeting the voters we needed to get to the polls to win this thing:’