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Among Republicans, Mitt Romney, (center) former Massachusetts governor, has spent the most on collecting names, $1.7 million. The highest spender among Democrats has been Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who has paid $630,000.
Among Republicans, Mitt Romney, (center) former Massachusetts governor, has spent the most on collecting names, $1.7 million. The highest spender among Democrats has been Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who has paid $630,000. (Eric Thayer/ Getty Images)

Candidates spend heavily on voter lists

Of all the right-leaning publications and websites that have written upbeat pieces about Mitt Romney, few have been as effusive as NewsMax, a conservative magazine based in West Palm Beach, Fla., with a discernible soft spot for the former governor and his wife.

"With looks, charisma, money, and family all working for him, can anything hold Romney back?" NewsMax asked in a long cover story in April.

Romney trumpeted the article when it came out, but he soon went much further in trying to capitalize on the glowing press: His campaign paid $22,000 this spring for the names and e-mail addresses of 1.3 million people around the country who were either NewsMax subscribers or had registered on its web site.

Romney's purchase of NewsMax's database offers a window into the growing practice among presidential candidates of voter targeting in which campaigns buy or rent lists of voters and potential voters in hopes of recruiting them into their stable of supporters and donors.

With an increasingly fragmented media market and new consumer niches emerging all the time, campaign specialists say, 2008 presidential contenders are devoting more resources than ever to identifying, categorizing, and making customized appeals to voters.

A Globe analysis of federal campaign finance reports filed by the candidates this year shows that Democrats and Republicans combined have spent at least $4.8 million through June on voter lists, consumer databases, and companies that analyze personal data for political ends.

Republicans outspent Democrats 4 to 1 on such efforts, but candidates from both parties, as they sought to expand their donor networks, spent far more in this area during the second quarter of 2007 than they did in the first quarter.

Among Republicans, Romney has spent the most on collecting names, $1.7 million, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The highest spender among Democrats has been Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who has paid $630,000. But nearly every candidate has spent some money on voter lists, ranging from six-figure checks for information compiled by data-collection firms to small payments to individuals who possess useful Rolodexes.

"What we're doing is we are data-mining like we have never done before," said Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant in Seattle and a board member of the American Association of Political Consultants. "It is often said that the smartest of all campaigns knows more about the targeted people they talk to than those targeted people will ever know about the candidate."

Voter targeting, or "micro-targeting," as it is sometimes called, has been around for several years, and both parties have used it to win elections: Romney employed the method in his gubernatorial win in 2002, as did President Bush in his 2004 re election campaign. But campaign specialists say that the 2008 presidential hopefuls in both parties, given the number of candidates and the difficulty in reaching many types of voters through the same TV ads, are relying heavily on targeting certain niches.

"More than ever, there is a fierce competition among these candidates to talk directly to voters and make direct appeals to them," said Mark Sullivan, whose Somerville firm, Voter Activation Network, has helped Clinton and other Democrats organize and manage voter lists.

Generally speaking, the lists are compiled by a company or a political organization, drawing from many different sources -- voting records, real estate data, and magazine subscriptions, for example. Political campaigns then examine that data to develop sectors of voters to pursue.

Allen offered this hypothetical example: Voters with Jewish-sounding surnames who own homes worth more than $350,000, are registered to vote, and have children in public schools would receive phone calls, e-mails, or literature from a candidate who believes his or her platform addresses their interests.

Popular sources of names for presidential candidates are the political committees of politicians who have endorsed them.

Indeed, winning an endorsement from an elected official often means winning his or her database, too, an illustration of how supporters' names are passed from candidate to candidate.

Take Clinton, who picked up a crucial supporter earlier this year in former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. After flirting briefly with running for president himself, Vilsack later endorsed Clinton -- then sold his list of supporters to her for $20,000.

Senator John McCain of Arizona bought data from Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, one of his key Republican supporters, and Romney has purchased access to the lists of three current or former GOP members of Congress supporting his presidential bid, including Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado and former Missouri senator Jim Talent.

"Your overall goal is to grow your number of supporters," said Romney's political director, Carl Forti. "One way to gain supporters is to tap into existing networks."

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who has built an unprecedented donor network of nearly 260,000 people, has relied less on voter lists than his major competitors have. Still, he spent $38,000 on the lists in the second quarter, including $225 to Kevin Delany, whose website, draftbarackin2008.com, drew a sizable following last year before Obama entered the race.

Delany said that Obama's campaign approached him earlier this year about getting control over his network of more than 100,000 people and that he and a few other pro-Obama Web activists were granted a private 45-minute meeting with the senator on Capitol Hill. Delany said he wanted to hand over the names for free, but FEC rules require candidates to pay a fair market value to acquire such assets.

"For a mom-and-pop operation," Delany said, "it was pretty exciting for us."

Those admirers aside, VIPs in each party are receiving valuable business from the heavy spending on voter lists. Clinton paid $75,000 in May to a company called Catalist, a data collection firm run by Harold Ickes, a former top aide to her husband in the White House.

And Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, has sent almost $550,000 to Olsen & Shuvalov, a Republican firm in Austin, Texas, run by protégés of GOP strategist Karl Rove.

As for NewsMax, Romney is not the only candidate to tap its databases: Giuliani paid the company $31,000 in the first quarter, and other candidates have purchased the magazine's names through list brokers.

Christopher Ruddy, chief executive and editor of NewsMax Media, said the company receives a sizable portion of its $20 million in annual revenue from renting its lists to Republican candidates and party organizations, though he won't say how much.

"We have all of what we think of as the main Republican activists in the country," Ruddy said.

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, who worked for Senator John F. Kerry in 2004 but is unaffiliated in this cycle, said that while it is true that candidates are devoting more resources than ever to targeting voters, such methods tend to make a difference only at the margins.

He said, though, that sometimes it is the margins that determine which candidates win -- and which ones go home.

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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