Both Democrats and Republicans have long maintained databases with whatever intelligence they can muster on individual voters. Party officials obtain lists of registered voters (about 170 million people) from the secretaries of state in the 50 states, plus the names of those who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered (another 50 million people). Then they use phone banks and shoe-leather canvassing to learn which candidates these citizens prefer and what issues they care about. Other sources provide new details: who has been a campaign donor or volunteer; who shows up in public databases of people holding, say, nursing licenses or hunting licenses. During the last election cycle, the Web tools for accessing and adding to these databases got better, and far more volunteers used them. “We went from a bolt-action rifle to a machine gun, but we also trained lots of people how to use it,” says a senior Democratic Party insider.
The Republicans are no slouches, either. Five years ago, the big story was their push toward microtargeting–identifying niche groups on the basis of hobbies, group membership, and even consumer data purchased from commercial vendors. “If somebody gets Field and Stream, they’re much more likely to be a Republican voter than a Democratic voter,” Matthew Dowd, a Bush-Cheney 2004 strategist, observed in a 2006 interview with Frontline. “If somebody gets Mother Jones, they’re much more likely to be a Democratic voter.” Democrats had fallen behind in the quest to target voters, partly because each state party kept its own data.
But that changed in 2007, when DNC chairman Howard Dean centralized data collection and management. Dean hired Voter Activation Network, a company based in Somerville, MA, to combine data from the 50 states and create an Internet interface for the resulting database, VoteBuilder. Any Democratic candidate anywhere in the nation could log in, download customized lists, and contact voters. Any detail gleaned from these voter contacts was fed back into the database for the benefit of all future Democratic candidates.
Then came Barack Obama, whose Web campaign operation turbocharged the collection of data on individual voters (see “How Obama Really Did It,” September/October 2008). In early 2007, Obama’s campaign established a social-networking site called my.barackobama.com, or MyBO; it included a custom interface for VoteBuilder. This allowed any Web volunteer visiting the Obama site to obtain lists of voters from the DNC database. Volunteers phoned these voters, asked questions about their politics, and recorded their answers through the MyBO interface, pumping more data into the DNC’s servers. (Three million such calls were made in just the final four days of the campaign.) The senior Democratic source says it’s safe to say that at least some information was recorded about the opinions of 200 million Americans. Thanks to Obama’s Web operation and those of other Democratic candidates, the DNC’s database is now 10 times the size it was in 2004, according to Voter Activation Network founder Mark Sullivan. At the same time, Obama built an e-mail list of 13 million, supplemented with information about the activities of these supporters within MyBO. Beyond the formidable Obama and DNC databases, a third database serves Democrats and progressive organizations. Built by Catalist, a company headed by Bill Clinton’s former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, it started with the national voter list and added supporter data from progressive groups like the Sierra Club.