In 2002, we also learned that a few state Democratic parties were using online systems that allowed campaigns to access voter data directly. As much as I was comfortable with the way we were serving the Democratic and progressive community with voter data, I was soon convinced that we would also have to create an online system. Access to voter data had always come through professionals like us. We could make sure mistakes were not made and those understanding the data best were still in the best place to serve clients. But the toothpaste was out of the tube, so to speak. People were clamoring for the ability to access the state party voter files themselves. It was no different than the way we were now buying books through Amazon. The middle man’s existence was in danger and without our own online system we would be standing alone as a middle man.
During 2003 and into 2004 we created our own system called Leverage. That fall, we hosted voter files online for several of our Democratic state party clients, as well as for the DNC. Our online presence in the Democratic community was second only to Voter Activation Network (VAN), one of the firms that has been doing this at least a cycle longer than us. Access to voter data was now becoming truly democratized. Just as the PC network had allowed us to operate much of our computer services business without programmers, now the only requirement necessary for hands-on access to our databases was minimal knowledge of a PC.
Instantly, the number of people with hands-on access to voter file databases went from a few dozen to thousands. This changed everything. New campaign staffers would consider their state’s voter file as the VAN, or as Leverage, or one of the other systems competing in the space. As much as I would argue that VAN and Leverage were interfaces for accessing the database, and that the databases were best created by Blaemire Communications, few wanted to listen to that. The expertise required to build and enhance a voter file properly was something taken for granted. What campaigners saw was what the interface looked like—they made assumptions about the data inside.
After the 2006 election, the DNC decided to build voter files for the state parties itself, hosting all of them on VAN. Because they were free, it spelled doom for my company, which had contracts with 26 Democratic state parties to build and manage their voter files. If that wasn’t bad enough, many of the progressive organizations that represented the remainder of our client base got together to create a company to build a national voter file database they could depend on. That company became Catalist, and my non-party clients were soon gravitating its way. Within a year, I would gravitate that way myself, merging my company with Catalist in December 2007.
The advance of predictive modeling
We have always tried to use information we know about people to predict their behavior, both in marketing and in politics. But now we could take the massive amount of information accumulated on voters and model their political behavior as a result. It’s the third major development that has reshaped this business over the three-plus decades I’ve been in it.
Techniques to model behavior are now mind-boggling. Our data constitutes a devastating mix of ingredients for creating a rich soup of information, always growing and being refined. We are overlaying a growing list of predictive values to the large amount of individual data already made available on voters. Not only are we able to choose to contact a voter because he or she is a Democrat or a Republican, or old or young, or a good voter or not, but we can also choose from a number of models. We are scoring voters on their likelihood to take an action in support of a progressive issue, or to donate. A voter is similarly scored on his or her media consumption habits and whether it is better to contact that voter by mail, phone or online. All of these are just examples of the many things that have been and are being modeled because of the advances in modeling technology and the way the modern campaign accumulates data. No longer is the data thrown away.
No longer is this just the profession of trained programmers. The growing amount of artificial intelligence and known individual data is a powerful combination that makes campaigns smarter. The world of political computer services looks nothing like it did when I began. It’s hard to imagine what another 30 years of progress will bring.
Bob Blaemire is the Director of Business Development at Catalist.