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Obama’s Magic Software

Posted by cwaddell under All, Political Strategy

Paul Adams
Paul Adams will be blogging the federal Liberal convention in Vancouver this week.

The Ignatieff Liberal Party is trying to capture a bit of that Obama magic.

Barack Obama said nice things about Ronald Reagan; Michael Ignatieff phones Brian Mulroney on his birthday.

Obama had a 50-state strategy; Ignatieff has a 308 riding strategy.

Obama spent inordinate amounts of time in Elko, Nevada, of all places; Ignatieff goes to Alberta, of all places.

The latest bit of magic the Ignatieff Liberals have imported is the voter contact software used by the Obama campaign. The so-called Voter Activation Network (VAN) software was developed by a company based in Massachusetts staffed by people who — judging by their bios — appear to be simultaneously political wonks and computer nerds.

The software is not, in fact, a product of the Obama campaign. VAN is almost ubiquitous in U.S. Democratic politics at all levels. So it is tried and true and tested, and the Liberals are probably wise to go out and buy it.

In an article about the software last week in the Globe and Mail, the Liberals’ president-designate, Alfred Apps, is quoted as saying: “I can tell you, we’re going to be a hell of a lot more competitive [in the next election] than we have been in the last three elections.”

But hang on.  The Liberals do seem like they will be better prepared next time round…but the software isn’t likely to play a large part, not this time, not if the election occurs as soon as many people think it will.
Software – any software – is a vessel into which you pour information.

I may be using the same word-processor as Alice Munro, but, well, judge for yourself….

The Liberals’ problem is not that they haven’t had software. It is that they have not, to date, been effective in assembling and organizing information about supporters, members and potential donors – information that needs to go into the software before it can do them any good.

The software the Liberals are purchasing is intended to connect information about voters, including demographic and political information, to the party’s membership and fund-raising lists. But it will only be as good as the data that’s input.

The Liberals’ membership lists are still a mess (see previous blog). And their direct-mail fund-raising, which is perhaps their single most crucial disadvantage compared with the Conservatives, is barely underway.

Moreover, until the Liberals mobilize their on-the-ground organizations for the next election campaign, they are unlikely to be able to collect voter data as systematically or in sufficient volume for it to be an effective political tool. Barack Obama, remember, launched his presidential campaign on December 7, 2007 – 23 months before the election.

Nearly two years of campaigning allowed Obama organizers to collect data – emails, addresses and phone numbers — at every rally, every bake sale, and on every web-contact, which could be used by on-the ground organizers to recruit workers and to raise money.

In this country, the Conservatives have been the runaway leader in this technology. They have had a software system called CIMS (Constituency Information Management System) since 2004. The critical element of CIMS, as the one-time Conservative organizer Tom Flanagan explained in his book, Harper’s Team, was that it was accessible both locally and nationally, so that a voter identified as a supporter by a Tory door-knocker in rural Saskatchewan could then be approached by direct mail for a donation, perhaps even on an issue he or she was known to feel strongly about.

Having been at this for five years, the Conservatives have been able to hone their database, in particular for fund-raising. No more letters going to people who have moved, or who have moved on politically. No more begging letters to deadbeats.

Even once the Liberals have assembled robust lists of members and supporters, they will need to be tested and culled before they will be effective for fund-raising. That requires an investment of time and money by a party that doesn’t have a lot of either. Tory organizers tell me that it took CIMS more than a year of operation before their direct-mail starting making money for them.

No reason to think that it would take anything less for the Liberals to get their software working effectively for them. By that time, most folks seem to think we will already have been through another election.
Paul Adams, a former political correspondent for the CBC and Globe and Mail, is a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty and executive director of EKOS Research Associates. He is researching a book on the Liberal Party.