Databases Give Incumbents Edge

Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington have a front page piece in today’s WaPo arguing that, if Democrats somehow fail to take back the House, a major reason could be the incumbents’ advantage in computer techology.

In one of the lesser-known perks of power on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are using taxpayer-funded databases to cultivate constituents more attentively than ever. [Steve] Chabot — a six-term legislator from Cincinnati who finds himself imperiled this year after years of easy races — has a list of e-mail addresses of people who are most interested in tax cuts. His office recently hit the send button on a personal message to alert them to the congressman’s support for extending tax breaks on dividends and capital gains.


One of these tools is the congressional account each lawmaker can use to communicate with constituents. In the past, this money went mainly for sending newsletters or other mailings to voters, who often turned around and tossed them in the trash. But technology has allowed lawmakers to track the interests of individual voters, file the information into a database and then use e-mails or phone calls to engage directly with voters on issues they know they care about. In essence, this is the traditional “franking” privilege updated — and made far more powerful — for the digital age.


Using taxpayers’ money, legislators employ a new technology that allows them to call thousands of households simultaneously with a recorded message, asking people in their districts to join in on a conference call with their representative. With the push of a button, the constituent is on the line with the House member — and often 1,000 or more fellow constituents. More important, the lawmaker knows from the phone numbers where the respondents live and, from what they say on the call, what issues interest them.

Parties are spending boatloads of money in competitive races these days. They spent $6 million between them in the Bilbray-Busby race, and that was just to fill out the remaining five months of “Duke” Cunningham’s term. It’s inconceivable that they won’t be able to provide adequate spam technology to challengers in the handful of targetted races.

Incumbents have substantial institutional advantages, to be sure, but this has to rank mighty low on that list.

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, Congress, Science & Technology, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Amplez says:

    Democrats skipped blogs.

  2. I suspect the advantage has less to do with the technology behind the email than the really valuable database. If you think about the person who gets worked up enough to ‘write their congressman’, then you can recognize that knowing what issue is a hot button for a certain constituent is a key factor. Now if the Washington Post wanted to really do some investigation, see if different positions on the same subject are being emailed to different constituents. Hopefully the incumbents would be smart enough to know not to do this, though given some of the congress critter actions presuming brains is perhaps to high a mark.