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Overlooking a Revolution

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By Vijay Ravindran
Friday, August 14, 2009

The White House is in the hands of the opposition party. The Senate and House are also firmly in its hands, to the point that regaining either chamber in next year's midterm elections seems like a complete fantasy. And there's no clear candidate for the next presidential election who can both excite the base and appeal to the center. Today's Republican situation? Well, yes, but this is also what it was like to be a Democrat four years ago, when I left the technology world and went to work for a tech start-up on the Democratic side.

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The pundits on cable news today are as fixated on the news cycle and identity politics as they were four years ago. Then, however, they missed a major story as it was developing, and it's possible that they may be missing the follow-up right now. The seeds of today's Democratic success were planted four years ago. A comprehensive list would be lengthy, so I will highlight just a few:

In the 2005 Virginia race for governor, new campaign tactics were used to identify potential supporters of then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and maximize every dollar of time spent campaigning. Because Virginia does not include party identification with voter registration, more sophisticated techniques, including the use of microtargeting, were needed to find likely supporters. And Kaine used these techniques so effectively that they became a staple of Democratic races by 2008. In fact, this success helped make the business case for Catalist, the company founded by Harold Ickes that I joined in 2005. Catalist commoditized sophisticated data aggregation and data mining for progressive interest groups and campaigns large and small.

As documented in Matt Bai's excellent book, "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics," wealthy Democrats began coalescing around building an organization that would not only funnel large donations but would also build the apparatus to evaluate the health of organizations before such donations were disbursed. That this organization, the Democracy Alliance, then went on to sponsor a number of groups that played an important role in the 2008 election and the transition went almost completely unreported in daily coverage of the election.

As Bai writes, the left finally developed a counterbalance to right-wing talk radio in the form of blogs, which allowed partisans to develop and refine views from a set of opinion leaders. This movement fed into organizational abilities not only within the Democratic Party but also in groups such as MoveOn.org.

Meanwhile, the sophistication of online fundraising advanced over the past four years. Grass-roots services such as ActBlue enabled anyone to be an online "bundler" for his or her favorite candidates and allowed instant collection of donations from a Web site.

The significance of such infrastructure developments has been largely overshadowed by the outcome of the 2008 election. But they played a major role in the wide margin of the results and in staffing the Democratic transition.

So what reactions, possibly equivalent, have we seen from Republicans since the election?

This spring there was plenty of media coverage devoted to the "tea parties," but what types of lists of participants were created by their organizers? What money was raised from people after the tea parties? Are there signs that this was the beginning of a movement of any real sophistication?

The media have covered the ups and downs of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, but so far we have seen no attempts to translate her importance using the measures of power that President Obama flexed. How big is her list of staunch supporters? How much money can she raise? How many volunteers can she bring to a Lower 48 race in 2010? Can she actually influence the health-care and energy debates through more than speeches and op-eds?

Howard Dean failed to win the Democratic nomination in 2004, but his innovative run led him to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and, under him, a number of infrastructure improvements occurred within the party. Meanwhile, the most innovative Republican presidential candidate from 2008, Ron Paul, is sidelined by his policy views.

This is not a critique of Republicans. Simply put, mainstream media did not cover many of the innovations that laid the groundwork for the Democratic revival, and it is entirely possible that the same thing is occurring now. If the media really want to serve the public's interest in prognostication, they need to cover the political infrastructure.

In mid-2005, Obama was a first-term U.S. senator, not the object of intense presidential speculation. In all likelihood, the next Republican presidential nominee is not currently a star -- it is just as likely that the candidate will come from "the field," which already includes the dynamic young voice of Marco Rubio from Florida, as that he or she will be one of the "favorites" such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Palin.

As the health-care debate, the Virginia governor's race and next year's midterms unfold, we would all benefit from understanding how political infrastructure is helping to influence those results and the future.

The writer is chief digital officer at The Washington Post Co. He was chief technology officer of Catalist from 2005 to 2008.



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