With these three databases, notes Vijay Ravindran, who until recently was Catalist’s chief technology officer, “the Democratic side has a lot of information that it could bring to bear. It has enriched the slate of volunteers who can be ‘turned on’ for future grassroots activities. It has information on people’s positions that can be used to lobby congressmen.” Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, which built the Obama Web tools, says the databases will probably be used to mobilize Obama voters in support of the president’s agenda. “Think back to 1992, when President Clinton put through health-care reform [and it failed],” he says. “If you’d had a list of demonstrated activists, online or off, who could help fight back, that is a powerful use for an informed surrogate.”
While it remains to be seen whether President Obama will try to deploy his supporters in that way, it’s clear that the databases are useful instruments. The Obama campaign tried many interesting strategies in 2008. Its “neighbor to neighbor” tool, for example, let volunteers plug in their addresses and pull up the names of 25 neighbors to call; veterans were recruited to call other veterans in swing states. But such strategies are now possible in unprecedented variety, and at an unprecedented scale. “You are getting potentially all the way to a one-to-one message,” Ravindran says. “In terms of how things move in the future, that is the Holy Grail.”
What’s a bonanza for campaigning also has its potentially intrusive side, of course. “The availability of huge amounts of personal information is new, and we don’t agree as a culture on what’s useful and [what] we’re in favor of, and what’s plain creepy,” says David Weinberger, an Internet advisor to the 2004 Howard Dean campaign, who’s now a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. “It’s exactly the same question that marketers are facing, but this is in the sphere of citizenship, and it’s important to get this right. There isn’t an obvious path forward yet.”
Indeed, political campaigns know much more about you than they used to. They always knew whether you voted, because this is public information. Now they know the details of your campaign activities and responses to campaign messages, right down to which e-mail messages led you to click open a link. They can trace any social networks you constructed inside a campaign site. When they buy consumer databases, they know even more about you.
Somehow, under President Obama, all this seems fairly benign–at least to his legions of well-wishers. To them, the idea that his DNC or his campaign might use knowledge of someone’s environmentalism to help fight for tougher clean-air laws will appear laudable. The idea that distributed volunteers might dilute some of the power of big donors and pressure groups in the next campaign will seem to many like a step in the right direction. But in another context, such activities might take on another color altogether–just as another kind of huge gathering on the Washington Mall might seem more ominous than uplifting. Information has always been power. National leaders of all kinds have always wanted both.