When Andy McKenna Jr. took the reins of the Illinois Republican Party almost two years ago, he was determined to turn our blue state red–or at least closer to purple. The party was in ruins, due in part to the indictment of former governor George Ryan and the decision to import Alan Keyes from Maryland to run for the Senate against Barack Obama. McKenna, who’d made his political debut in the 2004 Senate primary–spending $4.4 million, more than half of it his own money, and coming in dead last–says everyone kept giving him the same advice. “The biggest thing I heard was grass roots, you’ve gotta focus on the grass roots. My experience is in business, so I didn’t have any experience with grass roots.”

Then at a postelection Republican National Committee meeting in Ohio, McKenna heard about Voter Vault, a database that some analysts believe may well have swung the state for George W. Bush in his reelection campaign. Heading into this year’s midterm elections, GOP leaders are hoping the system will help save the party’s bacon in some of its toughest congressional contests, and McKenna’s one of those laying the groundwork. According to the RNC, Illinois has more Republicans using Voter Vault than any other state.

Campaigns have always used state voter files to identify loyal partisans and those who need an extra nudge to get to the polls. With Voter Vault a Web-based interface allows party workers and volunteers to add the information they glean when knocking on doors and making phone calls, determining if you’re pro-life or support the war in Iraq. Next comes a third layer: data purchased from commercial marketing companies. The magazines you subscribe to, the kind of car you drive, the number of TVs you own, whether you use a Mac or a PC–that’s all in the system. Finally your profile gets topped off with public information like census data: the race and income mix of your neighborhood, how many people own their homes and how big the homes are, how far you and your neighbors commute to work. If you’ve got a hunting license you’re probably against gun control, and since that license is public record, it’s collected as well. Even if you’ve never been to the polls, Voter Vault can help determine how you might cast a ballot.

Republicans use this data to “microtarget,” a strategy McKenna first heard about from an Ohio county chairman at the 2004 meeting. Three months before the election, the chairman told McKenna, RNC officials had handed him a list of 1,000 people he was supposed to register. “He looks at the list and he sees this guy Sam Smith’s name,” says McKenna. “And he’s like, ‘These guys are idiots. Sam Smith, he’s my number one volunteer. He does our pig roast, he drops our literature–you know, he’s registered.’ So before he complains, the chairman calls Sam and says, ‘Sam, you’re on my list.’ And Sam says, kind of sheepishly, ‘Well, I moved in three years ago, I just never took time to register.’ Now, the question is, how did they know Sam should have been registered? Because they did their microtargeting and figured out that people who subscribe to these kinds of magazines and live in this zip code and have this income level, there’s a good chance that’s one of our voters. So it can be very refined.”

The Republican National Committee started developing Voter Vault in 2000, spurred by the success of the union-propelled voting drives the Democrats had mounted in Florida and other states. It was first used in targeted congressional races in 2002, when the party picked up some new seats in both houses. And in 2004, when the GOP hammered swing states with money and people, Voter Vault guided the effort. The Democratic National Committee tried playing catch-up during the 2004 election, morphing its e-mail list into something it called, variously, Datamart and Demzilla, but the system never really got off the ground, and by late 2005 it had been abandoned.

Since then, Democratic efforts to create a microtargeting database have been fractured, partly as a result of internal battles over how much money the national party is willing to spend on key congressional races. DNC chair Howard Dean, who says he’s focused on rebuilding party organizations in red states, has agreed to pump as much as $12 million into local races, but that’s only a fraction of the $60 million the RNC has allocated. In a story published in the Hill on October 11, Rahm Emanuel, serving as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sniped that the DNC had done nothing to target “drop-off” voters–people who typically don’t participate in midterm elections.

The biggest national microtargeting effort for Democrats is taking place outside the party. Catalist, a private company backed by billionaire financier George Soros and led by former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, is providing voter-identification data to a consortium of unions and activist groups, including the AFL-CIO and EMILY’s List. But because of national campaign-finance laws, which prohibit federal candidates from accepting donations or in-kind contributions from labor unions, corporations, or any group that raises money in increments larger than $2,000, those groups can’t coordinate their activities with campaigns.

Governor Rod Blagojevich’s reelection campaign has developed its own voter-identification system, although it skips some of the commercial data sources used by Voter Vault. According to the campaign’s director of field operations, Scott Kennedy, the Blagojevich system uses census data to identify small areas where stray Democratic voters might be hiding. Kennedy says the campaign also plans to take advantage of the state’s new early voting law, which requires the board of elections to report each early vote to the candidates within 48 hours. That means if the Blagojevich campaign believes it’s locked in an early vote, it can check to see if that individual has followed through–and make follow-up calls if the voter hasn’t. “We can ask you, ‘Is it a timing issue?'” says Kennedy.

But just like the AFL-CIO, the Blagojevich campaign won’t be able to share any of its information with congressional hopefuls across the state. The governor raised his campaign money under Illinois’ more permissive laws, making his database the product of soft money and thus off-limits to federal candidates.

Campaign finance restrictions have forced many Democratic candidates to hire microtargeting consultants like Ken Strasma, president of the Washington, D.C., firm Strategic Telemetry. “We’re able to take several hundred different indicators from the census and commercial marketing data, look at people who do have primary history, and see what they look like demographically,” says Strasma. “Even if you’re not able to say people who drive four-door foreign cars are Republicans, period, end of paragraph, you can come up with scores that say, these people with this combination of 350 census indicators are 60 percent likely to be Democrats.”

Strasma is aware that Democrats have fallen behind in centralizing their scientific campaign strategies. “I can’t argue that the Republicans don’t have an advantage in that they have a more command-control-oriented structure,” says Strasma. “Karl Rove says, ‘Call these voters,’ and people from Senate to city council make the call. On the Democratic side we’re more focused on calling meetings and getting consensus. We’re not able to call an edict nationwide, but we have a lot of ideas bubbling up.” Tom Hamburger, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and coauthor of One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century, argues that the GOP’s advantage is a big one. With Voter Vault, he says, candidates up and down the ticket are “able to work hand in glove with the Republican Party. And it’s a working database–you don’t have to go to Harold Ickes and say, ‘Give me your beta version.'”

Yet while Republican organizers in Illinois have gotten with the program, many of them don’t seem to have tapped into Voter Vault’s full potential. The Cook County Republican Party, for example, isn’t doing much microtargeting. “Right now we actually do more with the names that we know instead of trying to prospect off it,” says executive director Tom Swiss. Lake County chairman Dan Venturi says he uses Voter Vault to look for “hard Rs” rather than swing voters, and four of the five committee members I talked to in Du Page County said that they were using it the same way. But they definitely think it’s useful. “I walk my own precinct,” says state senator Kirk Dillard, who also chairs the Du Page GOP. “I just did an early-voting letter to hard Republicans in my precinct, and the info came from Voter Vault. It’s a great tool–rather than waiting for our campaign headquarters in Wheaton to get us information, if a precinct committeeperson has insomnia at 2 AM, they can input or dig out or print out what they need.”

On the other hand there’s the fifth committeeperson, Debra Olson, whose home precinct in Wheaton is in the Sixth Congressional District, where Democrat Tammy Duckworth is neck and neck with Republican Peter Roskam in the race to succeed Henry Hyde. “In a race that’s this highly contested, you realize that it could be how a candidate votes on one particular issue that will make the difference for a voter,” she says, mentioning abortion and gun issues as examples. “Especially when there’s so much negative campaigning going on, and people get frustrated or cynical, you can appeal to them by saying, hey, I know you care about this issue, and this is a candidate that sees eye to eye with you.” She gets that information from the voter’s profile, but she usually doesn’t come right out and say so. “You try to work it into the conversation; you don’t just try to blow someone away with it,” she says. “You’re asking questions about issues people care about rather than saying, ‘I’ve been checking you out.'”

Meanwhile, McKenna is looking beyond the immediate election. In 2008 there’ll be another presidential race, Dick Durbin will be up for reelection, and Voter Vault will be an even bigger part of the mix. “We’re just beginning to build it out in a baseline way,” he says. “It does take two cycles for you to build the depth of data and the number of volunteers to actually make this stuff work.”