The art of politicking, high-tech style
Washington — You're sitting in your apartment when the phone rings. You pick it up, and the caller asks two questions: Do you support President Reagan, and are you registered to vote?
Depending on your answers, you may soon be visited by a local political volunteer offering to add your name to the voting roster.
There's nothing unusual about this scene, except that the voice on the phone comes from a tape machine, and your number has been dialed by a computer.
Your name, moreover, was probably culled from a computer-generated master list that took into account ev-erything from what kind of magazines you read (lowbrow? highbrow?) to income and education data in determining whether you might be a Republican sympathizer.
Welcome to machine politics, 1984-style.
Across the United States, floppy disks and mainframes are becoming as much a part of the campaign arsenal as billboards and leafleting. In fact, as this fall's elections come closer, politicians at all levels are tapping ''high-tech'' tools - computers, automatic phone-dialing systems, cable TV, satellite services - to an unprecedented degree.
The new electronics media are accentuating some of the revolutionary changes already wrought along the campaign trail by radio, TV, and polling. The new media are also giving politicians novel ways of communicating instantly with the public, greater ability to reach selected audiences for specific campaign messages, and the capacity to handle mounds of information about voters.
''It is a fertile time for new technologies to be experimented with,'' notes Eugene Eidenberg, former head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and now a vice-president of MCI Communications Corporation.
''The new technologies are affecting campaigns at every level, and in a short time you will see anyone who doesn't use them put behind the eight ball,'' predicts Robert Abeshouse, managing editor of Campaigns & Elections, a journal dealing with political strategy.
Other potential dangers loom: Will the expanding electronic files being amassed by campaigners lead to an invasion of privacy? Will politicking become a science of reading and playing on public opinion? And, in the long term, will the new electronic weaponry weaken party structure and voter participation?
The jury is still out on these questions. Whatever the ultimate effect turns out to be, the race is on among Democrats and Republicans to harness the new tools. Consider just computers, where the GOP is considered well ahead. The Republican National Committee (RNC) is working to expand the use of a powerful system it has had for several years now. The computer is mainly used for the mundane but essential chores too expensive to do by hand: bookkeeping, direct mailings, and fund raising. Lodged in the basement of the RNC's white-brick headquarters here, the mainframe brims with accounting figures, voting data, and lists (media contacts, financial donors, political figures). Some 50 committee staff members around the country, armed with portable terminals, can tap into the central computer and send messages over phone lines.
One aim: to fatten GOP coffers. Each day about a dozen men and women in two basement rooms peer into terminals. Up pop the names, addresses, and donation histories of some 6,000 contributors a day. The computer automatically dials a phone number, and, if someone answers, an aide comes on the line and makes a pitch for money. Also tucked away in the computer: a trove of favorable (Republican) and controversial (Democratic) quotations for use in speeches and the like. If a Republican needs a potentially damaging comment by Walter Mondale , for instance, it may be there.
Both the RNC and the Reagan-Bush reelection committee, meanwhile, are making a bold push to use high-tech devices to register voters. The Republicans are funneling $8 million into such things as computer services, phone-bank operators , and data analysis in an attempt to sign up to 2 million voters by November. In the past, the Republicans have shied away from such drives, since they often brought more registered Democrats than Republicans. But by using computer-generated lists, they now believe they can pinpoint supporters.
Here's one way it works: Lists of registered and unregistered voters in a state are cross-referenced with other information, such as income and education data, consumer buying habits, and precinct voting histories. From this, potential unregistered Republicans are identified. Then the telephoning begins, sometimes a completely mechanical process.
Does all this give the Republicans an edge? Not necessarily. The Democrats are mounting a massive (less high-tech-oriented) drive of their own, and they have a larger pool of voters to choose from. The GOP is trying to tap its strengths - money and technology - to offset that. ''With all our technology and volunteer force, we really don't have an advantage,'' says Helen Cameron, Reagan-Bush director of voter programs. ''We're just trying to keep a balance.''
Machines are also starting to be used in strategic planning, again with the Republicans leading the way. This year, for instance, the Reagan-Bush reelection committee plans to inaugurate a system, dubbed PINs for political information systems, that will analyze such things as census data, surveys, economic statistics, and voter registration patterns to aid Republican decisionmaking.
The GOP foray into silicon politics has Democrats scurrying to catch up. Their national committee, which has had a computer for about a year, is working to build its electronic file of donors, media contacts, and power brokers. Eventually, the information will be shared with support groups such as Hispanics , labor, and black organizations. Both the main Democratic presidential hopefuls - Walter Mondale and Gary Hart - are making some use of computers, but to nowhere near the extent the Republicans are, observers say.
Another electronic outlet - satellite linkups - is being used by the Democrats to get the faces of their congressional candidates before the public more often. Last January the national committee opened its ''media center'' on Capitol Hill in response to one the Republicans have had since 1978. Essentially it is a production studio where Democrats can make low-budget commercials and radio and TV tapes. Each day, for instance, the DNC reserves 10 minutes (at $145 ) on a Westar satellite. Congressmen can videotape speeches or comments for beaming to interested local TV stations or networks.
What does electronic campaigning portend? The full impact remains uncertain. For political parties, for instance, it could turn out to be either a boon or a bane. On one hand, if the parties become the providers of the new tools, it could strengthen the link between party and politician. On the other, if candidates have to turn increasingly to outside consultants, it may further weaken party structure, which has already lost influence in the TV age.
One point does seem certain, though, experts contend: Technology alone does not a winner make. After all, no computer can replace political judgment. Nor can ideas and imagery, no matter how they're projected, have lasting effect without something behind it. ''There has to be a message to convey, and it has to resonate with the people,'' says Stephen Wayne, a George Washington University professor of political science. Then, too, there's that old-fashioned handshake. ''In the art of politics, warm flesh still beats cold plastic,'' says Dr. Gerald Goldhaber, chairman of the communication department at the State University of New York in Buffalo.