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Maine Legislative Races Go High Tech

If you ever have gone searching for a new car on the Internet and then noticed that, suddenly, there are car ads showing up in your browser window - and you're also getting mailers at home - you have experienced the types of marketing techniques that were used in the most recent presidential election. And now that same technology is making its way into local political races in Maine. Mal Leary has more.

The tools for targeting voters have already been mastered by both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. And this year, they are providing that know-how to the state parties for use in local races.  Mike Franz is a government professor at Bowdoin College.

"What this is doing is moving what is already happening in the private sector in terms of how big businesses reach out and appeal to us online and send us messages through our email boxes," Franz says. "This is now moving into the world of politics."

And that means that party candidates for the Maine Legislature, as well as for Congress and governor, can take advantage of a suite for free tools and databases being provided by the RNC.  

The GOP effort builds on a massive voter file they call OneData with information on 150 million voters. It details information about whether the voter has a hunting or fishing license, and what magazines and Web sites he or she prefers.

And Maine Republican Party Chair Rick Bennett says it's free for the asking. "We are not really asking anything of them but providing them a very useful service. We are seeing a lot uptake - in fact, people are chomping at the bit."
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant says the state party is participating in the DNC's version of OneData called Project Ivy.  He says the effort will be to target voters with messages designed to persuade them to support Democratic candidates.

"We can use that information is available to us, and the experts who work with that information, to tailor messages to individual voters," Grant says, "and we are going to be trying to deploy that throughout the year."

And Grant acknowledges that messaging gets trickier when voters don't always vote along party lines, and may vote one way locally and another way on top-of-the-ticket races.

"There are certainly voters that split the ticket," he says, "so we ultimately have to make choices at some point about who we target and when and with what message."

Bennett says in some ways the new technology works in unison with one of the most successful campaign techniques for local candidates, which is to simply go door-to-door and engage voters one-on-one.

"We have kind of come full circle around, from just kind of pushing, pushing information at voters and hoping they will read it or hear listen to it - you know, robocalls, direct mail pieces - to really engaging them on issues that matter to them," he says.

And that sort of campaign, where the candidate knows how a voter feels about issues before engaging them, is new, says Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.

"No campaign has been able to target voters as kind of narrowly and as specifically as contemporary campaigns can do," Brewer says. "This is just unheard of."

But whether all of these new campaign tools will be the game changer that some are predicting is far from certain, says Bowdoin's Mike Franz.

"Those may matter in close races, but I really think the key effect here is making it easier for candidates to read that information and reach out to voters," Franz says. "Whether it is a game changer or not I think is still up in the air."
And UMaine's Mark Brewer says it is pretty clear that independent or un-enrolled candidates will definitely be hurt by not having the same access to these campaign tools.
"The introduction of this kind of technology to the Maine Democratic and Republican parties puts these non-party candidates at a greater disadvantage," Brewer says.
Both parties are in the process of training local candidates to use the databases and software tools, and report that some candidates are grasping their importance faster than others. After the primary elections, both Democrats and Republicans have more training sessions planned for their candidates.

So this fall, in addition to the usual barrage of television ads with their broad messages, you are likely to receive some very targeted campaign messages from your local legislative candidates.