Dean is testing that cooperate-better adage as the chairman of a private company that is serving as a data exchange for Democratic campaigns, committees and left-leaning groups. The company, Democratic Data Exchange, is the upshot of several election cycles in which Democrats felt they were well behind Republican counterparts in reaching out to their voters and persuading those on the fence to join their cause.
The goal is to make Democrats, up and down the ballot, smarter and faster about the mechanics of winning elections with the most precise information possible.
Complicated campaign finance laws prohibit candidates and national party committees from coordinating their data with outside groups that raise money from unlimited sources. That meant that at key points in campaigns, some groups knew that a certain bloc of support was crumbling but the candidate’s campaign would be flying blind, unaware of a fatal flaw.
Democrats believe this played a key role in their 2016 losses and, even though it was an overall successful midterm election two years ago, also led to a few losses in states they could have won in 2018.
Dean thinks the Democratic Data Exchange’s work can harness the 2018 momentum and the energy from some state and local races last year, along with good early signs in this year’s presidential and congressional races.
He said it played a key role in helping Gov. Andy Beshear (D) eke out a win last fall in Kentucky, and he is particularly bullish on Georgia, a fast-growing state with many new voters where there are two Senate races that could determine the majority.
“We can’t possibly win Georgia without this,” Dean said in an interview Friday.
Democrats are taking a page from the GOP playbook that amounts to if you can’t beat them, join them. For years Republicans have relied on Data Trust, also a private company, to serve as an exchange operation for GOP campaigns, committees and conservative outside groups.
Initially, Democrats argued that Republicans were breaking laws prohibiting campaigns from coordinating with these outside groups. The Federal Election Commission declared that GOP candidates were merely accessing voter files and other information that Data Trust held without any knowledge of which groups were providing them the data.
Democrats finally realized they needed to set up their own version of this, but the biggest problem was figuring out how to get everyone to stop the regular infighting that had become a hallmark of liberal organizations.
“Of course, nobody trusted anybody else. This is all about data. Data is incredibly valuable,” Dean said. “So my job essentially was to reduce that level of distrust.”
It’s an odd position for Dean, 71, whose 2004 presidential campaign ended in defeat but served as a trailblazing effort at harnessing the earliest online tools for raising money and organizing activists. Dean’s alumni went on to start critical digital groups and served key roles in Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns.
And in early 2005 he took over the DNC amid a sea of endless fights. He brawled with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Those two felt Dean’s talk of a “50-state strategy” was foolish and that resources needed to go to the most important battlefronts, not far-flung places where Republicans dominated.
One legendary battle ended with Emanuel saying the “f-word 700 times,” Dean said. “He just ran out the door, slammed the door, and I never saw him the rest of the campaign.”
But Dean always had good relations with state Democratic parties, all 50 of which he sent at least $60,000 to hire staff.
So early last year Tom Perez, the current DNC chairman, urged the hiring of Dean to serve as CEO of the data exchange, hoping that he would have the gravitas to pull in all sides to work together. The national party and many key state parties had withered away during the Obama years, never quite receiving the proper tending from the president or his top advisers.
Now Dean is playing the role of middleman with all the Democratic campaigns, candidates, committees and liberal groups. Even the DSCC and DCCC are working with the data exchange.
Lindsey Schuh Cortes runs the day-to-day operations at DDex after more than a decade of digital work in campaigns and for labor unions. A dozen engineers work under her, with six or more coming aboard throughout the summer.
Dean likes the fact that he isn’t sure of their political leanings. “Their interest is tech, not politics,” he said.
Other Democrats are happy so far with what they have seen, but they privately make clear that this is not some miracle cure for an underperforming campaign. Campaigns still require a good candidate, lots of fundraising, good research on the opponent and their own effort out in the field to energize voters.
What they want from the exchange is the last little margin in really close races, sometimes just a few thousand voters here or there.
Dean’s team believes Georgia and Texas are key places for its work, fast-growing states with lots of diversity but places that provided some letdown two years ago. Beto O’Rourke, in the Senate race in Texas, and Stacey Abrams, in the Georgia governor’s race, became liberal stars after narrow defeats — that last little margin wasn’t there.
Now, with Joe Biden’s campaign eyeing those states, and three Senate races combined, Democrats need every tool possible to win.
In Kentucky last fall, a local union and an anti-poverty group had been working for years in areas where the state party had little insight. Those groups turned over to the exchange data on 14,000 people who were low-propensity voters who always cast ballots for Democrats when they made it to the polls.
The Kentucky Democratic Party got ahold of those files and inundated the voters with information. Most turned out to vote, and Beshear won by 5,000 votes.
“How much difference does it make? In a close race, it makes all the difference,” Dean said.