The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Polls, Pols, and Power: The Computer on the Hustings (computers in political campaigning, fund raising)
by Nicholas Acocella

graphic of page

Polls, Pols, and Power:
The Computer on the Hustings
by Nicholas Acocella

Politicians have been running for whatever office is available for as long as
democracy has been around. lt's the nature of the beast. Recent innovations in
computer technology, while not noticeably affecting the volume of political
activity, have created a paradox in modern campaigning, making it, at the same
time, more complex and more simple.

On the one hand, political campaigning, like everything else in American life,
has become a matter for specialists engaged in sophisticated pursuits not
readily understood by the layman. At the same time, campaigning would have grown
more complex even without the advent of computers, which seem to be part of the
solution to the problem they simultaneously helped create.

At any rate, the ward heelers of yesteryear, with their derby hats, cigar stubs,
and local accents,have yielded their places in the average campaign headquarters
to specialists retained for their technical expertise rather than for their
first hand knowledge of conditions in the third ward.

This new breed tends to be younger, more modestly dressed, and better educated
than the precinct captains they pushed aside-the inflections of Harvard and The
University of Chicago supplanting those of South Boston and the South Side of

But-not so remarkably-they are trying to do the same things the old timers did
less scientifically and more intuitively. They are raising money, categorizing
voters, identifying voter opinions, and determining voter preferences: the
things all campaigners have to do in all elections regardless of the methods
[image]"lt threw up when I programmed it to select the most honest political

Fund Raising
Fund Raising: "Money is the mother's milk of politics," once observed Jess
Unruh, the one-time Big Daddy of California politics. And he was right. You
can't run a political campaign without money any more than you can run an
automobile without gasoline. ln the old days you sent a friendly lawyer down to
the local courthouse to corner other sympathetic members of the legal fraternity
into signing $50 and $100 checks. Or you rounded up the fat cats for whom you
either have done or might do a favor; they usually came through.

Today a campaigner, while he probably will not reject the first of these
alternatives, simply doesn't have the second option because of campaign
financing reform laws. Instead he will probably go to a direct response fund
raising firm.

These firms stockpile computer files of past and potential contributers to
campaigns. A candidate with a large environmental point to make will seek a fund
raiser who has access to membership lists of the Sierra Club, Friends of the
Earth and similar organizations. Candidates with heavy liberal credentials will
use one who has the ADA and ACLU membership lists.

Governor George Wallace of Alabama has virtually perfected this technique,
raising millions of dollars in small contributions from "just folks" over the

The variations within this arrangement are virtually unlimited. Some fund
raisers-like Richard A. Viguerie, lnc., of Washington, who works only for
extremely conservative candidates-are ideological. Others will accept offers
from candidates within a wide range of the political spectrum, while reserving
the right to reject the few candidates with whom they disagree entirely.

Some lists are finely honed compilations of names of those who have already
contributed to the candidate (or those like him). Others are less selectively
compiled, including people who are likely to contribute to a campaign of a
particular stripe. Still others are even more inclusive, containing names of
those who might contribute. Cost, on a per name basis, often depends upon the
degree of selectivity.

Naturally, returns on more generalized lists are lower. Prospecting from such
lists will bring in contributions from anywhere between 1 and 3 percent of those
solicited. Such an endeavor simply isn't cost effective unless letters are
printed (rather than computerized), in which case a run of labels is all a
finance committee needs.

A purged or specialized list-perhaps consisting of contributors from the
candidate's previous campaigns or from respondents to a prospecting
mailing-deserves more

Articles by Mr. Acocella have appeared in Campaign Insight. Model's Circle, New
York Affairs. Fodor's Travel Guides, and five books on sports.

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