Watching you vote 

Missoula database aids progressive campaigns

The political sign poking up in your yard for the last few weeks offers valuable information about you for candidates in future election campaign seasons.

In Missoula’s Ward 2, if your yard sports a sign supporting incumbent Don Nicholson, his challenger Pam Walzer recognized instantly that campaigning at your door would be a waste of her time as well as yours. It was just common sense.

So Walzer made a quick note about your political preferences on a list of registered voters provided by
the Missoula County Elections Office. While she could have just filed away her information for another election, Walzer instead loaded her observations into a shared database maintained by Ward 3 Councilman Bob Jaffe, so the next progressive candidate from Ward 2 will know about your pro-Nicholson yard and won’t spend time knocking on your door, or weeding through reams of paper to find out about your signage come 2009.

Jaffe’s database stores information about voters such as favored candidates, supported issues, and voter registration status–facts typically gathered by state and national campaigns during every election season.

But the concerted effort on the part of Jaffe and local progressives to build a comprehensive shared database introduces a new level of sophistication to electioneering in Missoula.

Jaffe says he first got the idea for using database technology during his Council campaign in 2005. He says he poured over the information he collected using a program he created with Microsoft Access, trying to figure out who would actually vote, who would vote for him, whether he had enough votes to win, and where he had the most support. Having answers to those kinds of questions made his campaigning more effective.

“It’s interesting because I’m a geek for numbers,” he says.

After winning his seat on City Council, Jaffe decided to move the Access program from a single computer onto a server, and invite like-minded progressive allies into the process to bring efficiency into their campaigning efforts, and help form a political resource for future candidates to use.

Ward 3 Councilor Stacy Rye says to a certain extent “databasing” has always existed on the local campaign trail. During her first election in 2003, former Ward 3 representatives provided her with lists of people who had supported them, she says, which is essentially what Jaffe’s computer data does, albeit electronically.

“The idea is that if someone supported you they’ll at least consider supporting someone else who shares your values,” Rye explains.

Until Jaffe’s server came into the picture, each candidate would be responsible for compiling information through candidate forums, surveys and knocking on doors to find out who would vote for them. While each of those tactics remains important during the election cycle, the progressive database can be updated daily by candidates on the trail and cross-tabulated with information from the Missoula County Elections Office, making the whole process more accurate and useful.

Rye says the database promotes a more efficient campaign strategy, but she’s not convinced it dramatically affected her own approach.

“The database is just a tool you can use…but when it comes down to it, [campaigning] is a lot of legwork—a lot of legwork,” she says.

However, some of that legwork can be reduced. With the shared data, progressive candidates can determine which voters to specifically target with an informational mailing, instead of canvassing the entire ward.

To illustrate the advantages of the database, Jaffe explains the significant potential cost savings from a simple postcard mailing. With each card costing roughly 30 cents to make and mail, and with 6,000 voters in a ward, that can add up to a big expense. So Jaffe reasons it’s better to be efficient and not bother sending cards to those who already support or oppose you, as well as those who have already voted, but instead target the voters who are not yet persuaded.

Compiling notes about supporters also helps predict election results, at least theoretically, Jaffe says. “Campaigning is very much like a sporting event,” he says. “In the past you could say turnout would be 24 percent, and you could say, ‘Well, this is how many votes I need to win.’”

Then comes the get-out-the vote phase of the campaign. “Once you have those people who say they’ll vote for you, you’ve got to make sure they vote,” Jaffe says. “There are a lot of groups who get the list of who’s voted and call the others to remind them.”

Again, the database makes the work easier because everyone calling–the candidate, volunteers, etc.–can work off an identical, up-to-date list of voters.

Even before the official announcement of election returns Tuesday night, progressives using Jaffe’s database already had an idea of the number of votes they had received by comparing the list of their known supporters to the list of people who voted. But whether or not those supporters stayed the course and voted for them, or whom the undecided vote went for, remained a mystery.

“You can have an idea by looking over the numbers, but things change,” Jaffe says.

The database projections might not be perfect, but on Tuesday night they proved accurate. After the initial returns, Walzer explained how she checked the results against her list of supporters. She said she thought she would win. Two hours later, she had.
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