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May the Best Database Win? A Look at the Voter Files Powering the '08 Race

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 19 2008

The Atlantic's Mark Ambinder has a post up on voter files that's got us here at techPres and PdF thinking. Mark's post reports on how Rock the Vote, the 501c3 voter registration group, is making creative use of data from Catalist, the progressive data operation. Rock the Vote attracts volunteers through Facebook who are given the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of people in swing states who have downloaded voter registration forms but not taken the final step of filing them. You can give it a go yourself here. (Shaun Dakin, you having a heart attack yet?)

Interesting in and of itself, no doubt. But Mark's post is a nibble on a much bigger topic. As we get closer and closer to November 4th, the nuts-and-bolts of campaigning take on huge importance. And nothing, perhaps, is more critical to those efforts as the voter databases that the campaigns are tapping into. And that makes it well worth it for us here at techPresident to attempt to map out the voter file landscape. So let's take a crack at doing that.

Catalist started in 2006, growing out of tensions at the Democratic National Committee over whether Dems were hopelessly falling behind Republicans on the technology front. After prominent party leaders expressed a distinct lack of confidence in Howard Dean's leadership, Clinton ally Harold Ickes went outside the party apparatus to launch what he called Data Warehouse. Today, the rebranded Catalist seems like an impressive operation. The firm has more than 40 staffers and a CTO who cut his teeth at Amazon.com. Micah Sifry has called it Voter File 2.0, and Garret Graff has written that Catalist has amassed nearly 15 terabytes of data of sliceable, diceable data. As Catalist tells it, the holy grail of their operation is the looping of collected wisdom gathered from block walking or commercial vendors back into their files, producing ever better data.

You might have noticed the striking thing about Catalist, either from my description or Ambinder's anecdote on Rock the Vote. Catalist isn't a Democratic tech solution, it's a progressive one. Does it matter, and if so, why? Well, as a money-making venture, the firm can work with non-party organizations. Clients include major progressive players like the AFL-CIO and EMILY's List. (It isn't cheap, it seems -- the numbers floated at the session Micah attended were between $25K to $400K per year.) But as an entity outside the Democratic party infrastructure, all the data polished to a bright sheen by Democrat Joe's campaign isn't necessarily poured into Democrat Sally's run next cycle.

Those silos distinguish Catalist from the institutional weapon that inspired it: the Republican National Committee's famed VoterVault. You might know VoterVault as the database that gave rise to a thousand stories in 2004 about how Karl Rove knew your personal proclivities better than yer own ma did. With it, it was said, the GOP could pick out a Field and Stream-subscribing NRA member from 30 paces. Launched in 2002, two years later it was said to contain insights into 168 million Americans, which works out to be more than one in two of us -- a serious advantage for Bush in 2000. VoterVault.com is open, at no cost, to Republican campaigns and candidates on every level. But the rub is that, as RNC property, its power can't be used to build conservative infrastructure beyond the GOP itself.

The DNC does have an in-house data program, launched by Dean at the very start of last year. Called VoteBuilder. Built upon the widely-used Voter Activation Network, it seems to be playing catch up to both Ickes's Catalist and the RNC's VoterVault. Much like the RNC's tool, VoteBuilder is online and available for state parties at no charge. A couple of questions to keep in mind -- With those two tools on the scene, is the Obama campaign using Catalist or VoteBuilder or both? How much of their collected data is being poured back into either?

As we head to election day, which campaign can touch the most voters the most effectively is going help determine who wins and who doesn't. These voter databases are a concrete way that technology is changing politics. So we'll be keeping an eye on them.

Many thanks to PdF's Alison Fine and Micah Sifry for bouncing ideas around for this post.