By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
A group of well-connected Democrats led by a former top aide to Bill Clinton is raising millions of dollars to start a private firm that plans to compile huge amounts of data on Americans to identify Democratic voters and blunt what has been a clear Republican lead in using technology for political advantage.
The effort by Harold Ickes, a deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House and an adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is prompting intense behind-the-scenes debate in Democratic circles. Officials at the Democratic National Committee think that creating a modern database is their job, and they say that a competing for-profit entity could divert energy and money that should instead be invested with the national party.
Ickes and others involved in the effort acknowledge that their activities are in part a vote of no confidence that the DNC under Chairman Howard Dean is ready to compete with Republicans on the technological front. "The Republicans have developed a cadre of people who appreciate databases and know how to use them, and we are way behind the march," said Ickes, whose political technology venture is being backed by financier George Soros.
"It's unclear what the DNC is doing. Is it going to be kept up to date?" Ickes asked, adding that out-of-date voter information is "worse than having no database at all."
Ickes's effort is drawing particular notice among Washington operatives who know about it because of speculation that he is acting to build a campaign resource for a possible 2008 presidential run by Hillary Clinton. She has long been concerned, advisers say, that Democrats and liberals lack the political infrastructure of Republicans and their conservative allies. Ickes said his new venture, Data Warehouse, will at first seek to sell its targeting information to politically active unions and liberal interest groups, rather than campaigns.
As it stands now, the DNC and Data Warehouse, created by Ickes and Democratic operative Laura Quinn, will separately try to build vast and detailed voter lists -- each effort requiring sophisticated expertise and costing well over $10 million.
"From an institutional standpoint, this is one of the most important things the DNC can and should do. Building this voter file is part of our job," Communications Director Karen Finney said. "We believe this is something we have to do at the DNC. Our job is to build the infrastructure of the party."
In the 2003-2004 election cycle, the DNC began building a national voter file, and it proved highly effective in raising money. Because of many technical problems, however, it was not useful to state and local organizations trying to get out the vote.
The pressure on Democrats to begin more aggressive "data mining" in the hunt for votes began after the 2002 midterm elections and intensified after the 2004 presidential contest, when the GOP harnessed data technology to powerful effect.
In 2002, for the first time in recent memory, Republicans ran better get-out-the-vote programs than Democrats. When well done, such drives typically raise a candidate's Election Day performance by two to four percentage points. Democrats have become increasingly fearful that the GOP is capitalizing on high-speed computers and the growing volume of data available from government files and consumer marketing firms -- as well as the party's own surveys -- to better target potential supporters.
The Republican database has allowed the party and its candidates to tailor messages to individual voters and households, using information about the kind of magazines they receive, whether they own guns, the churches they attend, their incomes, their charitable contributions and their voting histories.
This makes it possible to specifically address the issues of voters who, in the case of many GOP supporters, may oppose abortion, support gun rights or be angry about government use of eminent domain to take private property. A personalized pitch can be made during door-knocking, through direct mail and e-mail, and via phone banks.
This approach is designed to complement the broad-brush approach of television and radio advertising, which by its nature must be addressed to large, and often diverse, audiences.
Traditional get-out-the-vote efforts operated crudely, such as by canvassing neighborhoods in which at least 65 percent of residents voted for a particular party. It was often deemed too inefficient to focus on neighborhoods where the partisan tilt was less decisive, and it ran the risk of doing more to turn out the opposition's vote.
The advantage of data-based targeting is that political field operatives can home in on precisely the voters they wish to reach -- the antiabortion parishioners of a traditionally Democratic African American church congregation, for instance.
Consultants working for the Republican National Committee developed strategies to design messages targeting individual voters' "anger points" in the belief that grievance is one of the strongest motivations to get people to turn out on Election Day.
Under the direction of Bush adviser Karl Rove, the RNC and state parties repeatedly tested the voter file and different ways to contact voters to determine which were most effective at boosting turnout.
"They were smart. They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us," then-DNC Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said after the 2004 contest. "They were much more sophisticated in their message delivery."
Ickes has quietly raised an estimated $7.5 million in start-up money for Data Warehouse. A prospectus said the company will need at least $11.5 million in initial capital.
In addition to Soros's support, Ickes has the financial backing of some of the wealthy participants in a new fundraising group called the Democracy Alliance. He and Quinn, who will be chief executive of Data Warehouse, have hired technology specialists from internet retailer Amazon.com and a Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer project.
Quinn had worked on the voter file program under McAuliffe, but Dean brought in his own people after he took over in early 2005.
These included former Dean presidential campaign workers who formed a company called Blue State Digital, now under contract with the DNC.