For Sale: Detailed Voter Profiles
The RNC and DNC are getting into the data mining business. Will they trade sensitive, strategically valuable information for an influx of cash?
Now Republicans, who developed their own national voter file 15 years before the Democrats, are scrambling to come up with an apparatus to share and market voter information. Like the Co-op, the Data Trust recently established by the Republican National Committee will be a hybrid, a private company that party bosses built but can’t formally run. “We’re very much in the same boat as the Democrats, looking for a better alternative in terms of how to manage our database,” says former Michigan Republican Party boss Saul Anuzis, who now chairs the RNC’s technology committee.
In the aftermath of 2004, Karl Rove looked warily upon Catalist’s efforts to build an apparatus outside the national party leadership to house the data for targeting voters. “I thought at first it was a comment on their inability to raise money on the national level, that they had to do it on the outside, but it may have been that they were just ahead of the power curve in figuring out how to do it,” Rove says of the Democrats. “I think in 2009 and ’10 they did move ahead of us, because of the inability of the national party to keep pace.”
Rove, now the chief strategist behind the American Crossroads Super-PAC, finds himself in much the same situation Democrats did six years ago. His party was outmaneuvered in the last presidential election, and responded by anointing a party chairman so distrusted by party elites that many reconsidered their thinking about the value of outside institutions to manage an entire movement’s tactics. (The role of Howard Dean was played by Michael Steele.) When Rove first convened a group of Republican operatives to his home on Washington’s Weaver Terrace nearly two years ago with the goal of designing a single electioneering machine to consolidate the right’s fragmented interest groups, Catalist was an obvious model.
In designing the Data Trust, Republicans have struggled to build a party-chartered independent business that allies will want to use. The terrain is perhaps even more precarious than it was when Catalist was formed; Tea Party challenges to Republican incumbents have shown how easy it is for the party’s interests to diverge from those of its interest-group. Negotiations within the RNC had focused on how much influence should go to outside players —like Rove’s Crossroads or the network of groups funded by the Koch brothers—and for now the party’s interests have won out, settling on a model closer to the Democrats’ new data Co-op than to Catalist.
The RNC has structured the Data Trust as a private company with as much party DNA in it as possible: Its CEO is former RNC chief of staff Anne Hathaway, and three seats on its have been given to former committee chairmen: Ed Gillespie, Jim Nicholson, and Mike Duncan. Party officials are insistent that the arrangement is only a short-term contract that can be easily severed: Because the deal is for a list share, the RNC can pull its data out on a whim and quit the trust for good.
While the new company will add commercial data to party files, there is little ambition for it to develop the data-mining expertise to work through it. In fact, the entire Data Trust staff is likely to be smaller than the number of Catalist statisticians who work only on developing what they describe as data “synthetics.” “Our philosophical model is a little more open-source,” says Anuzis, the RNC technology committee chair. “It doesn’t make sense for the Republican party to duplicate what the market can do.” Given the importance, and value, of data in this election, the Republican faith in markets will be tested in more ways than one in 2012.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.