High-Tech Politics

THERE has been a huge power imbalance in congressional elections over the past decade. Incumbents rarely lose elections. With reelection rates for members of Congress running well above 95 percent for the past 15 years, many political analysts are searching for the reasons behind an incumbent's success. Technology may be the answer. Advances in computers, political software, and constituent tracking systems have drastically changed the way campaigns are run. Many experts believe computers have become crucial to a candidate's success.

Consultant Richard Viguerie is credited as the first to use computerized direct-mail technology in politics. In the early 1970s Mr. Viguerie computerized the mailing list of Marvin Liebman's conservative Committee of One Million to Support Nationalist China. The list was used extensively by Senator Jesse Helms and varied New Right causes.

By combining politics and direct-mail technology, Viguerie and others have been able to target individuals with specifically defined political interests. The process is relatively simple, but very fast. Computers are used to match voter registration lists against lists of magazine subscribers or organization members. Readers of magazines aimed toward specific markets are assumed likely to vote similarly.

For example, subscribers of gun magazines are more likely to vote against gun control than people randomly selected. Politicians with similar views can tap these people for funds. Viguerie has been so effective in raising funds for conservative causes that some give him credit for the rightward shift in American politics. His firm claims to have raised $500 million for clients over the past 20 years.

Until now, however, only candidates with considerable financial backing could afford to buy into this new technology. Only incumbents, traditionally with larger coffers than their opponents, have had the funds necessary to purchase these new systems. As a result, competition has been significantly reduced.

This period may soon end. Many of these new systems are affordable to even the lowest budget campaigns. Political software packages that once only ran on mainframe computers, can now run on desktop machines.

Aristotle Industries, a Washington firm that produces political software, claims its line of programs will transform an IBM personal computer into a ``powerful political machine.'' Aristotle's software can sort voter data by age, sex, affiliation, and many other demographic keys. It enables politicians to target voters for direct-mail campaigns, predict voter turnout, and even schedule rides to the polls for the needy.

Peripheral Visions, a political software company in Hempstead, N.Y., says its software lets elected officials track changing voter demographics and attitudes. The program, which runs on Apple personal computers, even allows politicians to rotate letters to constituents, ensuring that the same letter won't be sent to any two houses next door to each other.

The increased power of desktop computers has created a booming campaign industry. The Political Resource Directory lists 300 firms that provide computer-related services for politicians. Running a high-tech campaign once required vast resources and expensive machinery. No longer.

Political theorists attempting to predict the power of the incumbent may find help in Joseph Schumpeter's theories of economic power. Schumpeter's work on the impact of technology on market structure may also give us some clues in the political realm.

Schumpeter felt that technological advances would eventually destabilize large concentrations of economic power. Established businesses which did not actively compete in the market would be driven under by smaller firms keeping abreast of advances.

Schumpeter's ideas now be found on Capitol Hill. Many incumbents in Congress are seen as ``sleeping bears'' likely to fall prey to under-funded rivals who successfully exploit powerful, but inexpensive political technology.

Joseph Lieberman used personal computers extensively in his 1988 campaign to upset Sen. Lowell Weicker in Connecticut. Sherri Brown, Mr. Lieberman's campaign chairman, believes computers were ``absolutely critical'' for fundraising and strategy. Personal computers allowed Lieberman's campaign to quickly make efficient use of volunteers.

Mr. Weicker, a senator for 18 years, did not take Lieberman's underdog candidacy seriously. Early in the race, however, Lieberman's forces set aside a group of people responsible for technology. They found desktop computers could get the job done efficiently, and securely.

Lieberman's victory proved it is not impossible to beat an incumbent. Using inexpensive technology, his forces expanded their fundraising capabilities.

As computer technology gets less expensive, many more people will use it. New political software packages are constantly being developed. Technology, once the exclusive tool of the incumbent, is becoming an equalizing force.

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