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Dems Seek Upper Hand With Atlas Project

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Seeking to ensure that the Democratic Party is as prepared as possible to win the White House in 2008, a trio of Democratic field operatives are nearing completion on an unprecedented project designed to provide detailed tip sheets for each of 15 states expected to be presidential battlegrounds next November.

Known as the Atlas Project , the group was organized by Steve Rosenthal, a longtime labor operative, Mary Beth Cahill, who managed Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential race and Michael Whouley, widely regarded as the top field organizer in the party. These Democratic operatives already have signed up as clients the AFL-CIO, Emily's List, American Association for Justice and the Service Employees International Union -- and they are developing a separate plan for the Democratic National Committee. The Atlas principles briefed their clients on Sept. 6 and also presented their work to senior advisers for the presidential candidates that same day.

For the past 14 months, Atlas has meticulously gathered and cataloged available data from past elections in its targeted states, a process that unearthed a treasure trove of interesting political artifacts, including the party's 1996 Michigan coordinated campaign plan, which was found in an organizer's basement. All told, more than 45 gigabytes of information have been collected, sorted and standardized.

To supplement that wealth of information, Atlas has hired consultants in each of their targeted states -- seeking in each case to find the person regarded as the best Democratic operative in the state. In Michigan, that's Amy Chapman, who currently serves as the executive director of Grassroots Democrats. Pollster Dave Beattie is heading up Atlas' efforts in Florida while media consultant Will Robinson and former Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm are tasked with Ohio. They all work in conjunction with Atlas executive director Melissa Roy.

The full plans for each state are due to Atlas' clients on Nov. 15. The plan's writers are typically the lead state consultant in conjunction with one of the seven full-time staffers in Atlas' D.C. offices. After submitting their plans in November, the authors will also undergo what one insider decribes as a "doctoral review process," facing questions from roughly a dozen senior party operatives including Donna Brazile, who managed former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 race, as well as pollsters Geoff Garin and Cornell Belcher.

The goal, according to Rosenthal, is to provide a "detailed analytical look at the states that will hopefully provide a roadmap to victory."

Atlas is one of a series of progressive projects aimed at correcting the errors (perceived or real) from the 2004 presidential campaign. Many Democratic strategists believed that the defeat -- especially in states like Ohio and Florida -- was due in large part to Republicans knowing more about the state and possessing more current and historical data. Atlas is a reaction to that belief; Democratic operatives are hoping that when the nominee is chosen in 2008, the plans that will be presented to the campaign will give their candidate an added edge heading into the general election campaign. The venture's supporters argue that Democrats haven't tried anything as broad as this effort in nearly two decades, dating back to work done by the late Paul Tully and Mark Gersh in the early 1990s.

Will it work? It should help the nominee spend his or her money and time more effectively in targeted states. But, ultimately, the winning formula for election victories tends to be a mixture of strategy, message and intangibles. The Atlas Project won't win the White House for Democrats in 2008 but it just might help.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 18, 2007; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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