Angry Data Nerds Rain on Democratic Parade

While many Democratic activists and fund-raisers are in an almost celebratory mood at the prospect of taking one or both

While many Democratic activists and fund-raisers are in an almost celebratory mood at the prospect of taking one or both houses of Congress in next month’s election, the professionals charged with the behind-the-scenes mobilizing and deploying of the party’s vast voter database are troubled.

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The problem lies, specifically, within the geeky subculture of Democratic get-out-the-vote strategists and data managers—the guardians of the voter information that has become the lifeblood of recent elections. Just as the Democrats were making strides toward the ultimate goal of catching up to the finely tuned Republican micro-targeting operation, the Democratic corps of data nerds became engaged in a low-grade civil war, trading old allegations of miscues and strategic gaffes in the run-up to the 2004 election.

The result of the schism, operatives on both sides of the divide now warn, could be a severe blow to the party’s long-term prospects: Even if the Democrats win in 2006—on the strength, presumably, of the extraordinary confluence of bad news for the G.O.P.—they’ll be left in the dark by 2008, at which time a better-organized and more unified Republican machine will take the majority right back.

“You know, the D.N.C.’s competition is not the people who were there three years ago,” said one data manager who was there then. “It’s the R.N.C.”

Much of the fighting stems from a project launched in April by Hillary Clinton advisor Harold Ickes. The consultancy, now called Catalist, is staffed in part by data managers swept out of the Democratic National Committee by current chair Howard Dean.

They say that in pursuing his wide-ranging “50-state” organizing strategy, Dr. Dean may be courting the same state-party disarray that plagued the party’s data-management plans prior to the Terry McAuliffe years. Meanwhile, the tech savants associated with Dr. Dean say that Mr. Ickes’ group is draining vital resources from their own data-crunching work. Some of them have suggested that it is actually an attempt by the 2008 Hillary campaign to sidestep the national organization’s apparatus entirely, a charge that Catalist insiders dismiss out of hand.

“Think about it from the Republican point of view,” said one. “What G.O.P. organizer would say, ‘We’re not sure we want the Christian Coalition, the Chamber of Commerce and the N.R.A. to be sharing data’? Those organizations have made these investments, and we’re helping the people on our side do the same thing.”

The perception of Democrats working at odds with each other has left some tech-savvy Democrats shaking their heads.

“If we don’t win back Congress, we’re unbelievably dumb,” said Brian Reich, senior strategy consultant with Mindshare Interactive Campaigns and a former briefing director for Vice President Al Gore. “But we are not, in fact, going to be winning back Congress: We are inheriting the results of the Republican Congress’ failure to keep a majority.

“The Democrats are only going to take the House by a seat or two,” he continued, “because the Republicans have picked out the critical districts that they need to keep the majority, and know how to get voters to come out.”

While Republicans have spent the last two election cycles fine-tuning a sophisticated computer-based drive to identify key voter demographics in closely fought races, Democratic efforts to crunch and manipulate voter data to their advantage, by contrast, have dragged. (The Democratic disadvantage in terms of data-gathering will only be compounded by the cash disparity between the parties: A recent Washington Post analysis showed them heading into the final stretch of the campaign at a greater than two-to-one disadvantage in cash on hand.)

When Mr. McAuliffe took over in 2001, one of the first orders of business for his team of computer geeks was to gather information for the national party to turn into a flexible, open-source format for use in races across the country.

Then, when Dr. Dean took over last year, he essentially made a clean sweep of the people who had engineered the nascent national database effort.

Laura Quinn, who captained the D.N.C.’s data drives under Mr. McAuliffe, was among the early casualties of the regime change. She soon partnered with Mr. Ickes at Catalist. The firm has now raised $9 million in backing, including a good chunk from financier-cum-liberal-philanthropist George Soros; its total start-up target of $11.5 million now looks well within reach.

Now, techies associated with the D.N.C. are seething over the notion of competition from within the party. “Laura Quinn left things a mess,” said a consultant familiar with the situation, who added that entire states’ worth of voter ID’s from 2003 were missing.

A high-level data manager from the Quinn years takes vigorous issue with such claims, pointing instead to the claim that national donor lists went from 4,000,000 names in 2001 to 2.8 million at the time, allowing the Democrats in 2004 to surpass yearly G.O.P. fund-raising efforts for the first time ever. “It’s a false statement to say things were left in a mess,” the manager said. “It’s absolutely mistaken.”

But tech insiders currently associated with the D.N.C. estimate that the committee spent as much as $8 million to scrub up and fill in the voter data that was handed over to the Dean regime, most of which is in a main database known as VoterFile. Not only had information gone missing, they said, but the data in hand was not of high quality. “There were people in Florida listed as being in the city of ‘Fort’ and the county of ‘Lauderdale,’” recalled Ben Self, who now oversees VoterFile for the D.N.C.

Mr. Self also said the quality of the inherited addresses and phone numbers—the most basic information that get-out-the-vote shock troops rely on—was unacceptably weak.

The upgrading of the database hasn’t been cheap. In addition to the time-intensive efforts of committee staff to sift the masses of data, the D.N.C. has spent significant sums on outside consultants. The lead outside contractor developing Web-based tools for the national party is a Dean-allied outfit called Blue State Digital, which has billed $764,000 in business to the committee since it was founded in 2005—out of $1.29 million in total billings to state campaigns and parties as well as the national organization, according to filings compiled by CQ Political Money Line.

The money that the D.N.C. saves in streamlining such costly data-crunching operations will theoretically flow back into state party organizing drives in the grassroots party-building effort that Dr. Dean calls his “50-state strategy.”

But this is where things will get tricky. “The Republicans have now been at this for a number of years,” said Mr. Reich. “They have the advantage of not only having bought and crunched the data, but also of seeing how that data has performed in an actual election. The Democrats don’t yet know how it tests.

“We’re still kind of just looking for everyone,” he added. “We’re saying that anyone online who represents Democratic tendencies is a Democratic voter, instead of doing all the micro-targeting the Republicans do.

“We’re gonna have a lot of 34- or 37- percent-turnout races,” he concluded, “with a lot of people saying, ‘Please don’t ever make me vote again.’”

Angry Data Nerds Rain on Democratic Parade