This article was written by guest blogger John Fowler.
A Unified Database for the Right or Defeat by a Networked Democratic Party?
It’s been a good week for Republicans. First we find out that Obama’s secretary paid a higher percentage in tax than he did (However, Axelrod was quick to point out that Obama would not make an additional donation to the Treasury to correct this egregious unfairness.); next we find out that while Mitt Romney may have put his dog on top of his car, Obama had actually eaten a dog! (So much for DogsAgainstRomney.com); and finally we see Gallup polls with Romney actually leading Obama among registered voters. It’s almost enough to make a Conservative lean back and rest on his laurels, remembering the heady feeling of victory that swept Republicans into office in the 2010, midterm elections. Almost enough.
6 Months to Go; Where’s The Ground Game
With 6 months to go until the General Election, Republican precinct chairs and activists are sitting on the sidelines. The Tea Party movement, the energized Conservative base, is also effectively idle with no connection to the Party or to the Romney Campaign. The highly touted Republican Database, VoterVault, has fallen into disuse and disrepair and is viewed by Party Members and Activists as a clunky resource that most would rather not even use. Talk to a precinct chair in the Republican Party and ask them how they have been ignored, sidelined and under-equipped. There may be a plan to involve the Conservative Grassroots in this campaign, but if there is, it must be very closely held. In a close election, the party with the better “Ground Game” will win every time. If the Republican Primary is indicative of the General Campaign, we can look forward to a highly centralized, “Air War” with negative campaign ads dominating. This may not deter the loyal base, but moderate, independent and undecided voters will be turned off by such campaigning, and the base may even tire of the repeated requests for nothing other than contributions to fund more negative campaigning. In 2008, Obama and the Democrats had an overpowering Ground Game. If they are able to replicate most of that in 2012, they will be able to turn out a larger percentage of their voters than the Republicans. In a close election, Ground Game wins.
Key to the Ground Game: An Accessible Unified Database
The key to a Ground Game is a database of voters that has the voters’ position on the issues, their voting history, their current contact information, and that is accessible to the activists who are willing to use this information to contact their neighbors and get them out to vote. The Democrats have such a database—Catalist, which is accessed through VoteBuilder or Voter Activation Network (VAN). This is a networked, distributed, unified database that improves with usage and time. It is accessible to Democratic Precinct Chairs, Community Activists, and Unions such as SEIU and NEA. This was the tool that swept Obama to the Democratic Nomination and ultimately, the White House. When each of the tens of thousands of users of Voter Activation Network, contribute information to the Database through a phone call or a personal door knock, that information can be shared across the network. Even in a losing election, Democrats can gain potential political power by refining their knowledge of the electorate.
The Republican Dilemma
In the late 90’s the Republicans developed VoterVault, which was at the time the most powerful political database in existence. The party was able to use the information in VoterVault to conduct Voter-ID and Get Out The Vote efforts. In the absence of a better tool on the Democratic side, VoterVault was highly successful during the early George W. Bush Presidential years. The rise of Voter Activation Network (VAN) however, marked a “Revolution in Political Affairs”. The architecture of VAN enabled local activists to take control of the voter-contact features of the database and enhance the information they collected through personal contact while enriching the information available to all other campaigns that included the voters contacted. Put simply, a door-knock and survey conducted by any Democrat activist improved every Democrat’s knowledge of the electorate.
VoterVault continued to coast while maintaining its top-down, centrally controlled, activist unfriendly architecture. VAN took advantage of the concept of Social Capital and Social Networking and used technology to empower the Activists on the Left by giving them a state-of-the-art organizing tool and trusting them to use it to contribute to the now Progressive cause of the Left. Increasingly on the Right, if a campaign wants to collect data on the electorate, a unique database must be built for each campaign. This results in a disjointed, stove-piped, architecture where each individual door-knock and survey can only benefit the specific campaign that collects and enters the data.
A Unified, Distributed Database for the Right?
With the withering of VoterVault, and the diminished power of the Republican Party in the wake of McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform,(thanks John) the Republican Party is seeking to outsource the Republican Database. There are several competing, highly classified, database projects underway, but the view from the Grassroots is that they are not going to be available in time to empower the activists who need this information to organize their communities. Another explanation could be that the Databases like Themis or Data Trust are not intended to be made available to the Grassroots; that they are merely a new and improved version of the top-down, centrally-controlled model that Voter Vault represented. The result is the same for Precinct Chairs or Tea Party Activists—there is no unified database and voter-contact-management tool for you to use in the 2012 election.
rVotes: The Conservative Solution to VAN
If Conservatives are to harness the immense anti-Progressive, anti-Obama energy of the engaged Grassroots, Conservative Activists must be given the tools to get in the game. The same tool that Obama is using is available to the Right under the name rVotes. Unfortunately, the powers on the Right, including the Party, Incumbents, Candidates, and most importantly Consultants are not ready to embrace the distributed model that the Left is using and that is now available to the right in the form of a fully field-tested voter-contact-management system: rVotes. The software is online and available to be used in seven states (FLA, OH, VA, MI, AZ, IA, and RI) but it is only being adopted by small organizations and campaigns. This is not a new software development; this system is field tested by over a million users and is identical to that being used by the Democrats.
A distributed but unified database for Conservatives is essential to compete with Democrats in the 21st century. Already, 2011 has shown the power of a unified minority on the Left in wreaking havoc in Wisconsin and Ohio and NY CD-26. This theme will be repeated in the future as Democrats are able to turn out their supporters using VAN in order to gain electoral success.
If Republicans continue to deprive the Grassroots organizers of the technological tools like rVotes, Democrats will continue to win elections and build power by gaining a more complete knowledge of the electorate and empowering their activists to use that information to win elections.