What's Really Happening With Obama's Voter Data

The Obama Data Machine Is Chugging Along, Albeit Through Pea-Soup Fog.

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It's conventional wisdom that Democrats lucky enough to get the Obama campaign's data files are going to have a massive marketing advantage in upcoming elections.

And when Organizing for Action, President Barack Obama's data-savvy post-2012 campaign operation was established in January, it seemed to answer the question on every politico's mind: Where will the data go? But a direct transfer of the coveted Obama data from campaign to nonprofit is not so simple -- not by a long shot.

Credit: Illustration by Athletics

Exactly where the Obama 2012 data lives is complex, in some cases still undetermined, and mostly obscured. The receptacle for some of the information -- which included voter-file data, social-media data, ad interaction and measurement information, email data, polling data, volunteer-profile data and competitive intelligence on GOP contender Mitt Romney's media buys -- remains unsettled in part because Federal Election Commission rules on coordination and campaign financing prevent the old Obama for America campaign from porting everything lock-stock-and-barrel to the new OFA that spun out of it.

Are you on the VAN Or off the VAN?

The Obama data machine is chugging along though, albeit through pea-soup fog. The new OFA, a 501c4 nonprofit, recently signed with NGP VAN, a voter contact database and platform used by the old OFA as well as the Democratic National Committee. "The VAN," as it is known in Democratic Party circles, essentially is a storage and management system for its clients' voter-file data and supporter information. (VAN stands for Voter Activation Network.) VAN's biggest client, the DNC, has a contract with the company for all its state parties allowing Democratic candidates across the country to access its Vote Builder database, which compiles names, addresses, ages, phone numbers, voting history and other publicly available information.

The new OFA database is separate from that, stressed Stu Trevelyan, CEO and president of NGP VAN. "It's their own universe," he said.

Mr. Trevelyan's firm just snapped up the DNC's director of technology, Bryan Whitaker, leaving a significant gap on the national party's data technology team. Top tech people working in politics tend to make the rounds between the public and private sectors, so it's not surprising that Mr. Whitaker has accepted the COO role at NGP VAN. Mr. Whitaker, in charge of new business development and handling political, nonprofit and union clients, started his new gig last Monday. Former DNC National Data Director Andrew Brown is serving as acting Chief Technology Officer for the national party operation.

Implementing the VAN platform for the new OFA shouldn't be a difficult process because the product is somewhat off-the-shelf. However, the voter-file data therein has not been matched against legacy OFA campaign data, including social-media and email data, according to one person familiar with the situation. It's unclear whether all the layers of old OFA data will ever be integrated with the new OFA.

Much of the old OFA data is in a "dormant state now," said the person.

Today, the old OFA's email data is employed on a regular basis by the new OFA, which pays old OFA for its email list. "When the Senate defeated a bill that would expand background checks last week, I just couldn't believe it. Something that 90% of Americans support should be a slam dunk," declared an OFA missive sent to supporters yesterday, signed by Sami Rahamim, son of a man gunned down in a mass shooting in Minneapolis. Unless they've unsubscribed, people who signed up to receive emails from the Obama 2012 campaign are still receiving messages from the new OFA, including a recent one asking for $5 donations to help support gun-control measures.

The gun-control movement has another connection to the new OFA in Mike Conlow. The former deputy CTO for old OFA is current CTO at Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors around the country who support tougher gun-control laws. Mr. Conlow also is working with the new OFA on a consulting basis in a CTO-like position as the organization seeks a permanent tech head.

Meanwhile, as the Obama data machine works out its kinks, stories emerging from the Republican side perpetuate the perception of the Grand Old Party's data ineptitude. According to Politico, Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers are investing in separate projects geared towards improving the GOP's data and related technologies. Though the report suggests there are too many cooks stirring the Republican data pot, the left has multiple voter file data players in the VAN and Catalist, which serves left-leaning advocacy groups and unions including the ACLU, Emilys List and Service Employees International Union.

Under-the-radar DNC strengths

After 2008, there was a lot of handwringing among Democrats who were disappointed with what they believed to be a lackluster use of the '08 Obama campaign database -- then housed by the DNC as Organizing for America -- to support the President's pet issues such as health-care reform. Today, there are fears that the new OFA data powerhouse will steal the DNC's thunder, grabbing precious donor dollars and support away from the core party apparatus.

But the DNC does have some important remnants of the 2012 OFA campaign that could be used to its advantage if it is able to gear up its tech staff. For one, the DNC and state party organizations can access the field IDs, or information on volunteers contacted by the 2012 campaign, for local election efforts. "It's gone on to enrich the party data going forward," said a person familiar with the situation. The new OFA can also access that data, which resides officially with the old OFA campaign.

Another important piece of technology now under DNC auspices is a platform developed during the 2012 cycle to monitor TV and radio ad spending by the Romney campaign across all markets. The system was fueled by data feeds from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which measures political ad spending, as well as Nielsen. It was light years ahead of the antiquated paper and spreadsheet-based tools the party had used in previous elections, said one source familiar with it

Although the new OFA could build something similar, a person familiar with it suggested that the DNC -- always concerned about meager fundraising in the off season -- could license the platform to the new OFA, both helping out a friend and deriving new revenue.

Could Clinton benefit?

The party itself won't get involved during primaries, but there is a lot of speculation regarding whether the Obama 2012 data could be used to prop up an anointed 2016 presidential primary candidate -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example -- via the new OFA. "She'd be crazy not to want it," said one source asked to remain anonymous, like most people interviewed for this story.

OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan told McClatchyrecently that the group will advocate around issues but is "not electoral." As a 501c4 organization -- the tax code for a nonprofit social-welfare group -- the new OFA could branch off into a Super PAC to support or oppose specific candidates.

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