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Campaigns May Wield Redistricting Tools, Revisited

Thursday, February 24, 2005 at 09:49AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal in Company history, My personal history, Political Technology

NGP Software stands for National Geographical and Political Software, and emphatically not, as some have charged, for my initials (Nathaniel G. Pearlman). Occasionally I am asked where the “Geographical” part of the company’s name comes from, since it seems to be the least emphasized part. I answer that mapping is an exceptionally good tool for understanding politics, and that I am very pleased when I find a client who appreciates that, or a project comes in that lets us exercise our expertise in that area. Last fall, for example, we enjoyed helping Congressman Visclosky determine how to most efficiently place more than 6000 yard signs across his district.

I came across a piece of memorabilia yesterday that reminded me of this subject. It was several loose pages from what appears to be the March 1991 issue of Campaign Industry News, a long defunct publication that I believe was folded into or sold to Campaigns and Elections Magazine many years ago. I had written (but long-since forgotten) an article for that short-lived industry rag (Campaign Industry News). The article was entitled “Campaigns May Wield Redistricting Tools.” There was another article in the same issue by a Republican redistricting expert, Thomas Hofeller, titled “Redistricting in the Computer Age.”

In my brief article, I concluded that “geographically organized data may be campaign software’s wave of the future.” I explained how, in what was then an important innovation, redistricters “bring the political and demographic together with specialized mapping software.” I then conjured up an image of “a modern campaign headquarters” that could look “like a mini-Pentagon,” with “huge video screens showing maps of territory to be conquered.” On the maps, I wrote, “information from the campaign database, from donor lists to results of past races and demographic information could all be available.” If one wished, I continued, to “see precincts where large sum donors live, they could pop up immediately. Or one could circle an area with untapped potential for your candidate, and receive a report of exactly which volunteers were available there to distribute leaflets, make phone calls, or drive voters to the polls.”

Nowadays, the use of computer mapping technology or geographically coded data in politics is commonplace, but still underused. GIS systems or mapping libraries are inexpensive and the necessary data is much more readily available than it used to be. According to my article, I asked Hofeller in 1991 whether Republicans were going to use mapping technology and political data generated for redistricting in political campaigns. Hofeller replied mysteriously that he was “well aware of valuable residual applications.”

I know of numerous instances where enterprising individuals or companies have made progress in this area, but I’m always interested in learning more. If anyone out has seen particularly interesting applications of mapping to politics, let me know. npearlman@ngpsoftware.com

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Reader Comments (2)

You're right, maps are definitely underused in campaign operations, probably out of a sheer lack of funds. I was just thinking about mapping in politics this morning, and how Kerry's PA operation had the most distorted walk-lists ever, listed alphabetically by street name (real helpful...).
Along the same line of thought, I was thinking about the scanning machine/system in the corporate strategy department at the American Red Cross headquarters where I volunteer, and how they use a machine to scan the chapter surveys received into their database, which then spits out statistics and analyzed in reports used to make corporate decisions. I suppose the machine might be ridiculously expensive, but how much data entry/volunteer time (not to mention errors and all the time spent training on database use) would that save for campaigns. Call sheets and walk-lists could be entered by one person instead of dozens and dumped directly into the db.
Anyhow, good to see some of this valuable information you have pent up coming out, Nathaniel :)
February 24, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Ahhh, GIS, my first love. I've been pushing the mainstreaming of GIS in campaigns since the census got started in 1999. I use it for everything. If it comes across my desk, it gets mapped: my boss' public schedule, his donors, his volunteers, his performance and the demographics of neighborhoods he visits in addition to walk lists/maps, lawn-sign locations, etc. It's not that this information isn't stored elsewhere on cocktail napkins and impromtu spreadsheets. It usually is in any campaign. However, GIS enables us to take this information from the abstract and make it relevant and easy to understand for everyone from field volunteers to the campaign manager who is overwhelmed by the statistical reports the targeting manager insists on running.

Politics is local, even in a national election, and nothing drives that point home better than to zoom in on your house and click. The information underlying that point can vary greatly. The breadth of data available for use in campaigns runs the gammut these days from census, property, election history of the precinct, IDs and so on. GIS can present it all. It does, however, require someone who knows what's available, how to get it, how to manipulate and how to analyze it. Most local campaigns don't have that person. Political parties and consulting firms are missing the boat by not incorporating GIS into their repetoire of services.

The vision mentioned in the original post by Nathaniel of a mini-Pentagon is enough to make me want a cigarette. Maybe I'll just do some yoga instead.
March 19, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterSiri

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