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The Fine Art of Data Husbandry: A Look at What Catalist is Teaching Democrats

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, October 6 2009

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is digging into an "after action" report from Catalist, the progressive data firm. You can read Marc's analysis of the report, the 42-page Aggregate Activities of Progressive Organizations in 2008, and Marc's mini case study on how the union organization SEIU used data to reach out to 4.5 million voters and help achieve its 2008 election goals. Catalist is quick to note in the report that it understands the difference between correlation and causation. They're not claiming responsibility for the '08 election results. But the raw numbers of contacts between progressive organizations and voters suggests that this last time around Democrats did do a better job reaching individual voters. John Kerry and Americans Coming Together, says the report, asked 8.5 million people about their presidential preferences in 2004. In 2008, the 90 or so member organizations belonging to Catalist completed 15.4 million -- nearly double -- presidential ID contacts.

Taken together, the reports and Ambinder's take make clear that understanding the Catalist story as one where Democrats finally get their act together risks missing its meaning and message. Even worse, it seems, is fixating on microtargeting. You know, this idea that has sprung up over the last handful of years that the Holy Grail of campaign data management is knowing your voting preferences based on the kinds of magazines you subscribe to and the model of the car you drive.

Instead, there's this critical aspect to the Catalist story of the progressive establishment actually trying to earn itself the name "establishment." Or to put it another way, they're attempting to create a commons. Catalist's creation -- and the development of files on 260 million Americans, according to the report -- was a bid on the part of Democrats not have to start from scratch every election, to create an environment where "data assets are being stored and mined for the future, rather than being tossed in the trash." More importantly, the ambition driving Catalist is to empower progressives to build upon each other's work, so that what each of those 90 groups -- from the AFL-CIO to EMILY's List to the Human Rights Campaign to NARAL to the NAACP to the Obama campaign -- finds out from knocking on doors feeds back into the system. (The Obama campaign's early willingness to embrace Catalist's network approach, in contrast to the Clinton campaign's data program, earned it respect in some Democratic circles.)

The Catalist project's goal is to create a tsunami of progressive activity -- which the report suggest correlates pretty well with actually turning out Democratic voters -- then use that the a framework for a sustainable majority. That's an entirely different model than the scratch-and-trash system of elections gone by, where what one Democratic campaign learns about voters might as well be written in code, for all the good it does other progressives. Catalist calls it "data husbandry."

How important is Catalist? It's difficult to say. Even the company isn't willing to claim that they got Barack Obama elected and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. One measure of its success: Ambinder reports that "several targeting specialists are trying to find a business model to create a Catalist-Right."