Voter Relationship Management: The Constituent Is the Customer

Candidates, political parties and money might seem to dominate the upcoming 2008 U.S. presidential election, but when it comes to voter relationship management (VRM), software rules campaigns and politicking.

When qualified U.S. citizens cast a legal ballot to express a preference for a candidate or for a proposed resolution of an issue, they do so as part of a vast process of interconnected relationships with 175 million other registered U.S. voters. Constituents become voters on Election Day so, from now up to Nov. 4, 2008, it’s all about VRM.

Brian Hanf of Minneapolis-based Trail Blazer Campaign Services is a software developer and campaign consultant for local, state and national-level candidates. He developed Trail Blazer, a campaign management package for grassroots campaign support, contribution tracking, financial management, get out the vote (GOTV), voter management and Federal Election Commission disclosure reporting. Trail Blazer enables political consultants to manage databases using a query engine for data mining to target audiences.

“From the beginning, VRM has been pretty simple stuff,” Hanf told CRM Buyer. “It usually consisted of a list of registered voters and sometimes included what elections the person voted in. Today, that is still the basic model. But now, between the increased power of home computers and the Internet, things are beginning to get interesting. We are now beginning to see software like Trail Blazer campaign manager do more — like crossing ‘groups’ (attributes) with other items to get targets.”

VRM, according to Hanf, is rapidly evolving so that features like advanced targeting, personalized messaging and information updated to each individual voter are becoming part of the everyday operations of political campaigns.

Customers and Constituents

Constituent relationship management (CoRM) and VRM borrow from customer relationship management (CRM) — the set of processes and supporting technologies used to plan, schedule and control an organization’s pre- and post-sales activities by acquiring, retaining and enhancing customer relationships. Substitute “constituent/voter” for “customer” and “election” for “sales,” and you get CoRM/VRM, the political world’s version of CRM.

VRM systems consist of a series of technology-enabled processes allowing candidates and parties to effectively target and connect with constituents/voters from initial contact to the polling place. VRM includes databases, call centers, canvassers, marketing, technical support and field service. Politicians use these seeking a significant competitive advantage in the areas of data and voter identification, personalized voter communications and GOTV. The goal is to win now while improving long-term electibility through a better understanding of constituent and voter behavior.

VRM keeps track of databases of voters, donors, fund-raisers, volunteers and other persons who support the efforts of a party and its candidates to gain and hold public office. The GOTV component is activated in advance of the run-up to Election Day.

A VRM return on investment (ROI) is simple: win by outpolling the other guy. Lose and you’re out of business. The payoff of all VRM activities must be in political action: a vote from the properly managed constituent in favor of the candidate or issue.

Disciplined Approach

“VRM has evolved into a disciplined approach to understanding voter and constituent histories, profiles and tendencies,” said James O’Hara, managing partner and cofounder of Chicago-based Extended Data Solutions, which markets Votilogy, a VRM solution. O’Hara, a former Republican candidate for Illinois state representative, pioneered VRM concepts in the Republican Party and has provided consultation to the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Prior to VRM, O’Hara noted, understanding voter trends and histories was largely defined by tracking flat-file data in a “voter file.” This data was typically limited to election voter history and voter age, but may have contained anecdotal information on the voter’s income or ethnicity.

“Now, VRM provides a much broader understanding not just of a voter’s profile, but also the profile of the household in which the voter lives and the ability to predict each member’s likelihood to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure, contribute financially or volunteer,” O’Hara told CRM Buyer. “Likewise, voter communication programs have evolved from generic blasts into highly targeted, personalized touches with each individual voter.”

VoteBuilder vs. Voter Vault

Both the RNC and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have in recent years put major efforts into collecting voter information. Their databases — Republicans’ Voter Vault and Democrats’ VoteBuilder — help mine for issues to be used in conjunction with geographical information systems (think Google Maps or Google Earth).

The RNC spent years building a database with approximately 175 million names, identifying and reaching deep into the tight-knit communities that share GOP values. Voter Vault uses a point system that, based on certain demographic canvassing criteria, can tabulate if a constituent is a likely Republican or Democratic voter. The Voter Vault database — mostly compiled overseas in India — comes from various sources of public information. Data is legally bought in bulk on the Web or gathered by tens of thousands of dedicated field workers. Statistics are culled from credit reports and ratings, magazine subscriptions and records traded among monthly and weekly publications, vehicle registrations, consumer polls that people answered or mailed in for a coupon to get something free, records of consumer buying preferences captured by discount cards at the grocery store, lists of every local evangelical church with a bus, even census figures about the racial and financial makeup of a particular neighborhood, how much a house is worth or how many TVs it contains.

The DNC’s VoteBuilder

Beginning in 2002, the Democratic Party developed two databases — DataMart, containing the records of 166 million registered voters, and Demzilla, a smaller database used for fund-raising and organizing volunteers. In February 2007, the DNC replaced these with VoteBuilder. Described as a “state-of-the-art nationwide voter file interface,” the Web-based tool is designed to ensure that Democratic candidates from the national party to the state parties have access to the tools needed to help win elections.

VoteBuilder came from Voter Activation Network (VAN) of Somerville, Mass. VAN President Mark Sullivan got his start in politics working for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Sullivan recalled that up until 2001, databases of registered voters resided on mainframes and political campaigns had to buy back their own data from the vendors. So Sullivan developed the VAN software, which became the online data management tool most widely used by Democrats and their allies.

“When we build a VAN for a state party, the party can make it available to every Democratic candidate in the state or any subset of Democrats they choose,” Sullivan told CRM Buyer. “For one price, they make the most powerful tool in Democratic politics available up and down the ticket. So, while clients typically reach out to us in anticipation of a big, contested statewide campaign, state legislators and local officials usually become the VAN’s biggest advocates.”

Political Portals

Today’s political portals include Web sites produced by professional media outlets, candidates for elective office, activist groups and advocacy organizations seeking to bridge political action and political information-seeking. The political world loves the VRM capabilities of Web sites for presenting information and outreach opportunities — chat rooms, newsgroups, forums, blogs, voter tools, online advocacy tools, e-mail campaigns, e-newsletters — all aimed at actively facilitating calls to political action.

The portal reflects entirely the inside-the-Beltway world of its creator Dick Morris — political consultant, Fox News analyst and former adviser to President Clinton and U.S. Senators Trent Lott and Jesse Helms. Morris, who calls his portal (discussion board, “votes” sent to target legislators) “bi-partisan,” helped pioneer modern VRM. The 2002 BBC documentary “Century of the Self” chronicled how Morris first brought lifestyle marketing to U.S. politics by telling Clinton the way to winning was to throw out all ideology and treat politics as a consumer business — target the swing voters and identify their personal desires and whims, then promise fulfillment.

The RNC’s MyGOP portal features personal profiles, personal blogs, group blogs, picture albums and social networking capabilities. It also includes a selection of tools like “Precinct Organizer,” a Google mashup that allows members to discover fellow Republican activists in their areas. “Neighbor to Neighbor” is a page offering a list of nearby registered Republican voters and suggested talking points.

The DNC’s PartyBuilder is the portal built under the DNC chairmanship of Howard Dean, no stranger to Internet campaigning. The PartyBuilder is an integrated, custom platform designed to offer all the services of existing social networking sites. Emulating MySpace and Facebook, it allows users to find friends and create groups.

VRM Software

VRM software enables campaigns to target voters through various media, using Web-based tools to sort a database via geographic, demographic and voting history criteria. Custom criteria can include any statistical voter information integrated into the VRM manager to increase the precision of targeting.

1 Comment

  • Another great resource for political campaigns is Volunteer Scheduler Pro. The software makes creating smart, availability-based schedules simple.

    It will help get volunteers involved, keep them up to date by being able to check schedules and sign up for volunteer opportunities online, and most importantly, keep everyone satisfied and eager to continue volunteering by being flexible with their personal schedules and adhering to their preferences and availability.

    There is a free trial download available to get an idea of how the program works and if it can be a useful tool for your organization!

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