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The Political Right is Looking to Reclaim Data Superiority

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, November 9 2011

On Monday, the Guardian's Ed Pilkington hinted at the creation of a new database — either a "voter file" or "a database connecting millions of Americans" — to support the political causes and campaigns backed by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch:

The database will bring together information from a plethora of right-wing groups, tea party organisations and conservative-leaning thinktanks. Each one has valuable data on their membership – including personal email addresses and phone numbers, as well as more general information useful to political campaign strategists such as occupation, income bracket and so on.

By pooling the information, the hope is to create a data resource that is far more potent than the sum of its parts. Themis will in effect become an electoral roll of right-wing America, allowing the Koch brothers to further enhance their power base in a way that is sympathetic to, but wholly independent of, the Republican party.

So commences rampant speculation: Because of how tight-lipped things can be in political technology, and especially on the right, it's unclear exactly what this means. But what's also clouding the picture is what seems to be a separate initiative to move the Republican National Committee's voter file and the software used to update and access it into the care of an outside group, called Data Trust.

The New York Times' Nicholas Confessore reports that decision was made back in August:

One major innovation this election cycle will be the outsourcing of the Republican Party’s voter list, its most valuable asset but one that is enormously expensive to keep current. In August, the Republican National Committee signed a contract to let the Data Trust, a new outside group run by the committee’s former chief of staff, manage the database.

Data Trust will be allowed to swap the list with other outside groups, which can use money raised outside federal contribution limits to update it. Under current law, the improved list can then be used by the Republican National Committee, potentially saving the party millions of dollars.

Because of the Republican Party's current data setup, only candidates with the official endorsement of the party can use their existing software, Voter Vault. The party has for months been in the process of figuring out what to do about Voter Vault, which is starting to gray at the temples.

The great irony here is that in 2005, Democrats were wailing and gnashing their teeth at the failure of their own databases and software systems; Voter Vault was heralded as superior. Remember the level of precision with which the Republican Party was rumored to be able to predict a 2004 voter's behavior, based on prior voting history and other available marketing data? At the time, Brian Reich — now a senior vice president at Edelman, the communications firm — wrote for Personal Democracy Forum:

Unlike Bottled Lightning, a tool developed for the Dean campaign to help organize their voter outreach efforts during the Democratic primary, the DataMart/Demzilla system featured no grassroots tools. As one senior Dean official, who received a briefing from the DNC technology team during the primary campaign, told me, “Demzilla didn’t do what a field organizer needs it to do. There was no front end, no user interface. You weren’t going to get walk lists or other tools out of it. It doesn’t do bupkus.”

As a result, Democrats in as many as 14 states were still keeping their voter file data in a way that wasn’t readily accessible to the national party, or their organizers in the field. When records weren’t updated, contact information, political preferences -- even simple information about how many times a household was contacted about a specific issue -- were not available. Multiplied on a nationwide scale, it was a major setback for the Democrats’ field efforts. [Former DNC Chairman] Terry McAuliffe’s stated commitment to provide key tools for mobilizing the grassroots was falling short.

The solution that eventually evolved on the left was a combination of VoteBuilder, an inside-the-DNC product built by VAN, and Catalist, built outside the party with the backing of Clinton ally Harold Ickes. VAN and Catalist software can integrate; between chiefly these two firms, and the products they offer to entities of one sort or another on the left, pretty much any candidate or cause with the backing of a progressive or Democratic group that can afford it — state-level Democratic organization, big union, established political action committee — can benefit from work powered by an enhanced voter file. The other key thing about Catalist is when campaigns want to, they can pass information about voter contact history back to into the database for fellow travelers to use.

But that didn't happen until after 2004, and Reich wrote at the time that that was at least part of the reason why George W. Bush won a second term in office. Reich writes that when McAuliffe took over at the DNC in 2001, he inherited a party apparatus $18 million in debt and struggling with outdated infrastructure. McAuliffe made a play to modernize the party's tech — but for want of opening that innovation to outside groups, Reich writes, fell short.

It sounds like the RNC and its allies, in this era of the Tea Party and super PACs, are in a similar place and unwilling to make the same mistake. From the limited information that's already been reported, the Koch initiative and the RNC's efforts seem separate but related — as Catalist and VoteBuilder turned out to be.

The information that's available now is shaky at best, but it's clear that the Republicans and their network of related right-leaning groups have taken a renewed interest in achieving data superiority over the left.