David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Scott Brown, Voter Databases, and Social Media

The DNC’s vaunted voter databases failed to help Democrats on Election Day.

  • January 20, 2010

One of the great supposed achievements of the 2008 presidential race was that President Obama and the Democratic Party gained a formidable political weapon: the most detailed databases ever amassed on the views and voting habits of registered U.S. voters. Obama had deployed social technologies on a grand scale. And Democrats were said to be ahead of Republicans in deploying distributed volunteers to make Web-enabled phone-bank calls.

During such calls, volunteers could fill out online forms, building files on each John and Jane Doe–who they said they voted for, what issues moved them. In the two months before the 2008 elections, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) added 223 million new pieces of data on voters, giving the DNC ten times the amount of data they’d had in the 2004 campaign. (That’s what Voter Activation Network, a company based in Somerville, MA that builds front-end software for DNC database, told me after Obama won.)

All this data was supposed have allowed the delivery of powerful customized pitches to voters in future elections.

So where was all of this on Tuesday? Massachusetts is not a presidential battleground state, so relatively less outreach and data-gathering was done in 2008. Also, Democrats no longer have a lock on social media (if they ever had it in the first place). While John McCain may not have been much of an Internet candidate, Senator-elect Scott Brown demonstrated Obama-like facility with the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. Attention from national pressure groups, saturation TV ads, and robo-calls from current and former presidents tended to drown out everything else. And in the final analysis, some campaigns may be beyond technological help.

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