An emerging battle over control of political data has created a public food-fight between the Democratic National Committee and its state parties, with finger-pointing and name-calling underscoring a battle that both sides see as nearly existential ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The debate, which has flared in recent weeks and which the DNC hopes to chill with a meeting on Tuesday, is more than a petty political squabble over some of the party’s most valuable assets; it’s also a fight over whether the Democrats will repeat the mistakes of 2016, what role state parties will have and the leadership of Tom Perez as he tries to shepherd Democrats through it all.
On one side, Perez, top DNC staff and a host of other top national Democratic operatives argue that Democrats must develop their own version of the Republican National Committee’s Data Trust. The Data Trust is an independent for-profit entity that houses all of the Republican Party’s national and state-level voter information for use by presidential and congressional candidates and outside Republican groups.
What’s more, Perez and his allies claim the DNC has a narrow window of time to replicate a Republican project that took years of investment. They want their own version of the Data Trust to be up and running before the Democratic presidential primaries start in earnest.
Opposing them are an array state party chairs, officers and executive directors led by Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin, head of the Association of State Democratic Committees. They are concerned about forfeiting ownership of data they have collected to a group of technology professionals whose political judgment and integrity they are not confident in.
“We all have the same outcome in mind, which is winning elections and making sure we get Trump out of there,” Martin told a private audience of state party leaders on a Monday afternoon call joined by HuffPost. “There’s a way to figure this out, but it’s not going to be done on the backs of state parties, and it’s not going to be done by putting us out of business.”
Currently, state-level Democratic parties own the voter data through a voter file co-operative managed by TargetSmart, a private data management firm. The parties share the data with the DNC, which operates the software through which users access the data. Campaigns use the information for such things as how to decide where candidates should campaign and what messages they should emphasize, to predict how different constituencies will react to certain issues and to complement traditional polls of the race.
But a key gap in the Democratic system is the inability of outside groups to access and input data in real time instead of after its collection.
“It is also time to take critical steps to modernize our data infrastructure,” Perez wrote in an email to state party chairs Saturday. “The other side has already done this, so time is of the essence. If we want to continue to win elections, this modernization is an imperative.”
The resistant state party chairs insist, however, that the current co-op system can be upgraded to accommodate this change without adopting a whole new system.
“We can change the current system to see the data in real time,” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb. “My problem is turning over decades of work to a group of consultants who are not on the ground and who are not accountable to a whole state infrastructure that has lived before us and will live on well after us.”
“Everybody is screaming that there is a problem because we can’t trade information, or process information in real time from special interest groups,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “That’s true! If that’s something that we need to do, then, by God, we need to figure out a way to do it.”
My problem is turning over decades of work to a group of consultants who are not on the ground and who are not accountable to a whole state infrastructure that has lived before us and will live on well after us. Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb
What started as a technical dispute took a personal turn Saturday. Perez lambasted Martin and his allies in a blistering email to state party leaders that prompted the most vicious round yet of sniping in the press. DNC aides said Martin’s counterproposal, sent out Friday, came as shock to Perez and other party officials, who thought negotiations were proceeding well.
But rather than cow him, Perez’s email gave Martin a moral high ground to stand on as he tried to rally the troops behind him on Monday’s call.
Martin laid out a fallback plan if talks with the DNC continued to stall: Leave the DNC behind and raise funds to manage the voter data completely independently.
The mere threat of such action reflected an inherent leverage the state party chairs believe they have over Perez thanks to their possession of the data.
“I don’t think we should be going down that road, but if the DNC decides to end this historic partnership, then we as state parties have all the cards here,” Martin said.
Many state party leaders believe the fight is a matter of survival. The data they collect are the chief source of value they bring to the table when raising money for their operations and haggling over policy matters with the DNC. In the words of some operatives, the data are essentially their only asset.
“The state parties don’t have a lot that makes people need to pay attention to them,” said one former state party operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “They’ve been systematically weakened over the past years. The reason presidential candidates show up to their Jefferson-Jackson dinner is because of the voter file.”
The state party chairs’ sensitivity to perceived encroachments on their crown jewel reflects a turbulent relationship with the national party dating to the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama famously used his election data to create the separate organization Obama for America ― later rebranded Organizing for Action ― that critics across the ideological spectrum blame for diverting resources and energy from the DNC and the state parties with which it works.
By the time Hillary Clinton ran for president, she found the DNC bereft of cash and unprepared to take on the supportive role it would normally assume in a presidential year. The Clinton campaign effectively took over the DNC, using the state parties mainly as vehicles to funnel campaign cash upward to their central operation.
The race for the DNC chairmanship was an opportunity for many state party leaders to elect a DNC chairman more responsive to their needs. Many of them, including fellow Minnesotan Ken Martin, backed Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for the top post.
But thanks in part to the support of Obama ― the very man accused of neglecting the DNC ― Perez narrowly defeated Ellison.
Since then, Perez pleased state party chairmen by upping their monthly stipend from the DNC from $7,500 to $10,000. But state party leaders are nervous about the status of DNC innovation grants for the coming year, and the DNC’s fundraising has at times been lackluster.
Mike Shields, a former RNC chief of staff who helped develop its now-vaunted Data Trust, said it took masterful diplomacy for then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to align all stakeholders behind the project.
Shields did not have the same confidence in Perez’s abilities. Referring to the DNC chairman’s Saturday missive, Shields observed: “You only send an email like that if you are in a position of weakness.”
A new variable entered the already chaotic mix last week when LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman announced plans to invest $35 million into his own data storage entity ― whether state party leaders can reach an agreement with Perez or not.
The Hoffman plan represents a threat to both the DNC and the state parties ― a successful private effort could render both group’s data work largely irrelevant. But it also makes for a useful talking point in the DNC’s negotiations with the states.
“If the party does not participate in something like this, it will happen without the party,” one DNC staffer working on the data efforts told HuffPost.
But if Hoffman follows through on his plans, many Democrats worry about a repeat of the resource drain caused by OFA under Obama. Republicans have their own cautionary tale of an outside data operation depriving them of adequate partisan control.
Several years before the Data Trust was up and running, the conservative billionaire Koch brothers launched their own data collection operation, i360.
The libertarian-leaning Kochs do not march in lockstep with the RNC, however. For example, in the November midterm election, they declined to endorse the Republican candidate for Senate in North Dakota and even distributed positive campaign literature on behalf of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who narrowly lost.
Years before the Koch brothers’ controversial role in North Dakota, Republicans foresaw the pitfalls of relying on an outside actor to administer party data, according to Shields. “Any company or any billionaire who seems to agree with us but isn’t accountable to the party structure ... and has their own agenda” cannot substitute the role of the party itself, he said.
There is a dispute among Democratic operatives over just how far Republicans are ahead in the data wars ― some insist the existence of such a gap is overstated, while others argue each party is ahead in certain areas. But most agree getting the data right is even more important for Democrats than it is for the GOP, which is a more monolithic party. Democrats often need to target multiple, diverse voting groups. And the party’s data, digital and field operatives can’t even agree on how to define its data problems.
The only certainty? No one expects the party to solve its data woes at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The ending is going to be: Nothing is going to happen,” one Democrat with knowledge of the debate confidently predicted.