Data Dogs, Over and Under

I noted yesterday (with approval) that the DSCC seems to be making a serious effort to change the shape of the midterm electorate in 2014. If it works, it will be historic, and if it fails entirely we’ll know to treat the “midterm falloff” factor as an iron law of elections.

But it should be clear that significantly changing turnout patterns will require a king-hell data system advantage in identifying and mobilizing voters. According to Gabriel Debenedetti of Reuters, that’s exactly what Democrats look to have at the moment.

According to interviews with a dozen strategists from both parties, Democrats appear set to maintain their technological edge, potentially boosting their prospects in the 2014 midterm elections just as other factors – such as President Obama’s sliding popularity – are likely to favor Republicans.

It is not that the Republicans are not trying.

The Republican National Committee is spending “tens of millions of dollars,” spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski says, to “change the culture of our data and digital program” with new data analysis teams in Washington and Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, independent conservative groups funded by big-money donors such as the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch continue to have their own digital teams, typically focused more on issues – such as opposing Obama’s healthcare overhaul – than on individual candidates.

But in a reflection of some of the divisions between the Republican Party’s most conservative members and its more moderate establishment, campaigns and other groups often do not share information about voters and tactics.

And even as party leaders are aggressively pursuing a new digital game plan, Republican strategists acknowledge that some conservative candidates and their supporters remain wary of changing tactics they have used for years, such as reaching voters through television ads and door-to-door campaigning without much help from analyses of voter databases.

It’s kind of ironic that conservatives who endlessly think of the Democratic Party as a corrupt turnout machine where voters are bought with government benefits and then herded to the polls would be more focused on identifying and turning out their own vote. But instead of obtaining and strategically using the best data, they seem perpetually inclined (as we saw with the 2012 Romney campaign) to measure their level of mobilization by rally attendance, yard sign ubiquity, and other marginal phenomena. In close races, that could really matter this November.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.