Posts by Brian Reich

Please Standby…The DNC Is Still Experiencing Technical Difficulties

April 18, 2005

Brian Reich

Last year, President Bush was re-elected by a larger margin than in 2000. In 2004, Democrats also lost seats in the House and the Senate. And there are still plenty who think this was, at least in part, a direct result of the Democratic National Committee’s critical failure to plan for and employ technology effectively in the most recent election cycle. Despite raising record amounts of money under Terry McAuliffe’s four-year run as chairman, the Democratic Party failed to invest in some of the most basic online tools and is still putting many of the critical pieces of its infrastructure in place.

Democrats had plenty of opportunity to take advantage of online tools early on in the 2004 cycle. But the Party passed on opportunities that could have helped revolutionize their online efforts. Why? Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe made rebuilding the fundraising base and upgrading the core infrastructure of the DNC his priority. And that left limited funds or energy to seriously consider the other opportunities that were available.

Likewise, the national party’s three main fundraising organs — the DNC, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — have long failed to effectively coordinate their technology efforts. In February, they http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1346096/posts target="window"> finally agreed to share the DNC’s giant voter file and Demzilla database of party supporters. Their territorialism stands in sharp contrast to their Republican counterparts, who have long invested in new technologies and shared such essential resources.

While Howard Dean has inherited a party in far better financial condition, thanks to McAuliffe’s efforts, the future of the Party is still very much up in the air. Will Dean shake up the DNC’s internal operations? Will he bring the spirit of innovation and experimentation that energized his presidential campaign to Party Central? And will he be able to build on the newfound understanding of many DC Democrats that the old way of doing things is not sufficient? The jury is still out. But a look backward may help illuminate the issues ahead.

McAuliffe and Co. Roll Up Their Sleeves
When Terry McAuliffe assumed the Chairmanship of the Democratic Party in February 2001, things were looking bleak. Al Gore had lost. Democrats in the House and Senate had lost. The party was $18 million in debt. And those reporting to work at the DNC headquarters in South East Washington found outdated heating and phone systems and a flea- and rat-infested building.

McAuliffe recalled, “We were spending a million dollars a year leasing space, this building was not big enough, it had no technological infrastructure at all that could help us communicate, help us raise money, help us mobilize, help us reach out to the grassroots, politically- and fundraising-wise.” But McAuliffe would have to raise a significant amount of money just to start to address the problem. Complicating that task was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold), the arrival of which would dramatically change the way political organizations were allowed to raise money.

The party would now have to solicit donations from individuals, with strict limits. To do that, the Democrats would have to identify and then capture an entirely new donor base. McAuliffe developed a vision for a fundraising strategy grounded in one-to-one, personalized, communications. “You can’t raise money without being able to communicate. You have to be able to identify people with shared values, deliver the right message to them, and then ask for money,” McAuliffe told me. Executing that strategy was a different story altogether, because the DNC didn’t have the basic tools it needed -- a reliable bulk email tool, a strong database, or even good contact information for most of its supporters.

McAuliffe’s plan was to construct a completely modernized DNC headquarters building and a comprehensive database that featured economic, demographic and consumer data on voters nationwide – and for those to serve as the foundation for the Democrats’ future successes. He called the scheme “Project 5104,” (referring to the 51 percent of the presidential vote Democrats aimed to garner in 2004). Project 5104 combined new technology with proven strategies for delivering what he called "Means, Methods, Message, Money and Mobilization" to candidates and activists around the country.

McAuliffe raised nearly $30 million in soft money to help build a new headquarters before the McCain-Feingold provisions banning such efforts went into effect, much of it from traditional Democratic supporters. Several individuals wrote huge checks to help modernize the headquarters -- including Haim Saban, creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television show, who gave $7 million, and Steve Bing, a Hollywood producer and long time Democratic donor who gave $5 million. A handful of labor unions and corporations offered up $1 million each. The new headquarters has up-to-date technology, new in-house radio and television studios and houses both the Democratic National Committee and the DCCC. According to the DNC, the new headquarters was paid for entirely in cash in 2002 and lowered operating costs by more than $400,000 per year.

Demzilla vs. The Pachyderms
The larger effort was building the national voter file/database. The DNC was starting with “a non-relational, poorly designed system with no bulk email capability, a website that was essentially a brochure, and very little organization,” according to Laura Quinn, until recently a senior DNC advisor. They only had 70,000 email addresses on hand. The goal, according to Quinn, was to build “a unified, enterprise level platform that supported direct mail, bulk email, door-to-door data, event management, and Web traffic metrics.”

There were two pieces: DataMart, the voter file likened to a gigantic phonebook with profiles of the 166 million registered voters in the United States, and Demzilla, the DNC’s database of donors, volunteers, activists, local and state party leaders, and members of the press. DataMart was designed to attach key information to the profiles of registered voters -- party affiliation, consumer data, voting habits, census figures, etc. so the DNC could mine and model that data to help reach and convert potential voters into Democratic supporters. For existing supporters and donors, as well as other key audiences, Demzilla would serve as the hub of the Party’s internal communications effort, helping support online fundraising, grassroots activism, and general communications.

The DNC hired Plus Three, a small technology firm that specializes in Web-based database development, to help build its new system. Plus Three developed the DataMart/Demzilla system using an open-source software package including a Linux operating system from Red Hat, Apache Web server, MySQL database and Practical Extraction Report Language. According to Quinn, open source was pursued to allow for the DNC to manage the coding internally and to ensure the lowest possible carry cost. (For a more detailed explanation of the build-out, read this August 2004 Linux Pipeline article.) The total cost for the new system was around $2 million. The total technology upgrade including the DNC’s new phone system, television studio (for beaming satellite interviews) and bulk email system cost just under $4 million.

Unlike Bottled Lightning, a tool developed for the Dean campaign to help organize their voter outreach efforts during the Democratic primary, the DataMart/Demzilla system featured no grassroots tools. As one senior Dean official, who received a briefing from the DNC technology team during the primary campaign, told me, “Demzilla didn’t do what a field organizer needs it to do. There was no front end, no user interface. You weren’t going to get walk lists or other tools out of it. It doesn’t do bupkus.”

As a result, Democrats in as many as 14 states were still keeping their voter file data in a way that wasn’t readily accessible to the national party, or their organizers in the field. When records weren’t updated, contact information, political preferences -- even simple information about how many times a household was contacted about a specific issue -- were not available. Multiplied on a nationwide scale, it was a major setback for the Democrats’ field efforts. Terry McAuliffe’s stated commitment to provide key tools for mobilizing the grassroots was falling short.

GOP Opens the Vault
The Republican National Committee and its Congressional counterparts had been investing in new technology for decades. In recent years, the GOP began to mine consumer data, tagging hunting license registrations and magazine subscriptions to find likely prospects for cash and votes. They dumped this information into their own system, known as VoterVault, and built a database with approximately 175 million names. They spent the years leading up to the 2004 cycle identifying and reaching deep into the tight knit communities that shared their values, knowing that if they planted the seed of political discussion the groups could take it from there.

Then, in June 2004, the Bush campaign unveiled “Your Virtual Precinct,” a tool that allowed campaign volunteers to establish their own “precincts,” download a walk list of contacts complete with map and directions, send letters to targeted voters in other states, among other activities. In short, the Republicans were able to identify, and tap into existing social networks to do the work that had traditionally fallen to the political campaigns alone. This proved critical to their success in 2004.

Believe it or not, the Democrats actually chose not to build grassroots political organizing tools into the DataMart/Demzilla system. The DNC had traditionally waited until the nominee of the Party was chosen and let the focus of his campaign dictate their efforts. By the time John Kerry became the nominee with less than seven months remaining to wage the general election campaign, it was impossible for the DNC to build out the appropriate technology at that late a stage. Moreover, Kerry had just finished a bruising primary and was in serious need of money – not technology – in order to compete against a well-funded Republican effort.

Laura Quinn said “it was hard for the DNC to build software when there was no plan to follow.” Of course, the Democrats did have a field plan, which was mainly to leave the voter contact activities to the 527s, the heavily funded advocacy groups like America Coming Together, MoveOn.org and America Votes. The Democrats saw 527s, named for their tax code status, as the opportunity to fill in the key areas the party wasn’t expected to or able to because of a lack of funds. However, campaign laws prohibited coordination between the DNC and the 527s, so promoting a unified message proved very difficult.

After Senator Kerry captured the nomination in March 2004, the DNC did make an effort to build out Bottled Lightning on a national scale. Zack Exley, previous advisor to MoveOn.org and the Kerry campaign and current consultant for the UK Labour Party, explained what happened:

The difference was the amount of time there was to build. [Karen] Hicks [Governor Dean’s New Hampshire director who joined the DNC’s field team as an advisor in the spring of 2004] spent one full year organizing in New Hampshire, one of the smallest states in the country. She meticulously developed talent and skills on her staff as well as in her volunteer base. She had time to continuously push responsibilities out onto volunteers. Volunteers had time to recruit wider and wider circles of their social networks. Eventually an enormous percentage of all Democratic voters in the state had attended an organizing meeting for Dean led by Hicks' staff or volunteers. The distance, measured in layers of bureaucracy, between a front line organizer or volunteer and an experienced and talented field leader was incredibly narrow. That kind of solid organization took a year to build in a tiny state. It would take much, much longer to build across the whole nation.

At the national level, Karen had six months to build a program that was to be 100 times bigger than her New Hampshire organization. Also, in New Hampshire, she had near complete autonomy, but in DC she faced inevitable bureaucracy from all directions inside the enormous Kerry-DNC operation.

In the end, the system that was patched together probably created more problems than it solved – as all technology does at some level. The Demzilla/DataMart system is the political equivalent of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. While there are plenty of rumors about its capabilities (or lack thereof), there are also people who defend the system and believe it helped the party compete on a level it had never been able to before. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Neglected Opportunities
The Hill newspaper reported in early February that the DNC had ‘given’ the DSCC and DCCC access to Demzilla after some significant lobbying by new DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) and new DSCC chairman Chuck Schumer (D-NY). What took so long? The Democrats failed to develop a coordinated technology solution that included all party committees. The Republicans’ VoterVault system has always been shared across the GOP congressional committees, with each group paying for its upkeep. An RNC spokesperson noted in The Hill article (Hill Dems get into Demzilla by Hans Nichols, 2.16.05) "We pay for part of the maintenance of the voter file, so we have full access to it. We've had access for years, so it's not like this is something new."

McAuliffe said the DNC offered the DCCC and DSCC the opportunity to invest in DataMart/Demzilla system development early on. But the committees each chose to pursue their own direction. Peter Waldheim, who led the DCCC’s online efforts at the end of the 2004 cycle, told me that the Internet was not seen as a central organizing function at the DCCC – “it was more of a side view mirror.” And Jim Jordan, the head of the DSCC at the time, said at a forum recently that his lack of understanding of the possible impact of the Internet led him to pass on the opportunity four years ago. Both Waldheim and Jordan suggested separately it was a big mistake for their respective committees to go it alone.

The DNC was not alone in offering an opportunity to the committees to coordinate on technology upgrades. In early 2001, a group of venture capitalists and technology investors who were supporters of the DSCC offered to raise as much as $5 million to help update the party’s hardware, software, and online capacity. The plan was to build a new, robust system for the DSCC that would allow the committee to offer websites to all candidates, as well as deliver streaming video and share both content and data. Those tools would be made available to the DNC, DCCC, and other party committees to ensure a unified online effort. The plan was championed by long time Democratic activist Andrew Rasiej (Rasiej is the founder of Personal Democracy Forum), along with DCCC senior strategist Peter Waldheim and others, many of whom asked not to be identified. They provided me with copies of presentations that were prepared by this group and shown to President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, Representative Richard Gephardt, Senator Tom Daschle, and even McAuliffe. But apparently none of the key decision-makers understood the opportunity that was being offered to them, and the proposal went nowhere.

The Heat Is On
Terry McAuliffe clearly left the DNC in better financial shape than he had found it. The party has a new building, all new business machinery, and no debt. And as McAuliffe points out, “the new chair will get to come in here, and he won’t have to make phone calls to make payroll.” He boasts:

We now have a 175 million name database. Up from zero. We went from 70,000 email addresses to now, nearly four million. We raised $70 million dollars in 2004, just on email. Our direct mail, small donor base was 400,000, average age 78 in 2001. Today we are three million… 2.78 million… average age about 38 years old on the direct mail. We raised $400 million, $300 million of that from small dollar contributions, and for the first time in the history of our country we out-raised the Republican National Committee…. And we did it because of all the new databases, all the new technological improvements that we made in here, allowed us to do it.

But while McAuliffe was a great fundraiser, he hardly succeeded in implementing the other four “Ms” in his "Means, Methods, Message, Money and Mobilization" plan.

Howard Dean has been the chairman of the Democratic Party for less than two months and already has raised more than $3 million towards the next cycle’s efforts. In his speech accepting the chairmanship, Dean promised “to use all of the power and potential of technology as part of an aggressive outreach to meet and include voters, to work with your state parties, and to get our message out.” It is still just a promise, but one that he seems capable of keeping, given his recent political exploits. His greatest challenge starting out will be to pick up where McAuliffe fell short and either find, or build, the tools that can help the party succeed.

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The Prosperity Project: Corporate Voter Outreach on the Sly

December 10, 2004

Brian Reich

Imagine a political operation with the ability to speak directly to millions of American workers in the setting where they are most vulnerable to persuasion: the corporate workplace. And imagine it using the highly developed communications infrastructure built by thousands of businesses to quietly distribute partisan information to the masses. Now imagine this happening thousands of times in states all across the country. Sound a little far-fetched?

Allow me to introduce the Prosperity Project: a coordinated effort to rally support from within the business community in support of President Bush and Republican congressional candidates during the 2004 elections. The Prosperity Project turned the communications infrastructure that American businesses rely on every day – email, company intranets, and websites – into tools for political activism. As Darrell Shull, the Vice President of Political Operations and Executive Director of the Prosperity Project, explained to me by phone last week, “the marriage of technology and the delivery of political information in the workplace is a perfect marriage. The American business community uses these tools every day to communicate with their employees. Our strategy has simply been ‘talk to your employees about political issues using the tools they already utilize every day.’”

The Prosperity Project was created in 1999 by the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, the country’s oldest business PAC. With little notice, the project has become one of the largest, most well-funded education and get-out-the-vote support efforts in the country. According to the Boston Globe, groups including The Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business used the Prosperity Project as the vehicle for aggressively contacting employees, educating them on pro-business issues, and working to get them to the polls this past year. The Prosperity Project’s efforts were focused in Ohio, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Wyoming and more than a dozen other battleground states.

When the Prosperity Project first launched, the concept was simply to get employers to give information to their employees about how candidates stood on key issues. In 1999, BIPAC put the voting records of all congressional candidates online and encouraged employers to print and hand them out. Shull explained, “We hadn’t envisioned using the web as the mechanism. But we learned quickly, the real opportunity was to give them tools that they could optimize themselves, and use the web to push those tools out.” By early 2000, employers were given access to web-based tools to assist employees with voter registration and GOTV. BIPAC only focused on federal candidates during the 2000 election, but in 2001, began to include state level candidates as well. And in 2003, state-specific Prosperity Projects were organized in conjunction with the local chambers of commerce and trade associations.

In preparation for the 2004 election, BIPAC launched its “Easy Vote” system, complete with customizable voter registration, absentee ballot request, and polling-location location tools. Business groups coordinated to produce non-partisan voter guides, like this one offered by the Iowa Prosperity Project. (In Oklahoma, the Prosperity Project launched the nation's first Spanish language economic Web site.) The guides, offered online and available for download, showed how candidate positions on a handful of key business issues, including Economic Growth and Opportunity, Tax Policy, Environmental Policy, Trade, Technology, Civil Justice Reform, Healthcare, Energy, and Homeland Security.

There were no endorsements, nor were employers telling employees to vote for one candidate or another. But Shull explained that the key issues were considered part of a “consensus business agenda.” Topping that agenda was cutting taxes and reducing government regulation of business. It was clear from the available information that President Bush and other Republican candidates were considered better for business.

Was the Prosperity Project a success? More than 900 businesses and trade associations participated during the 2004 cycle, according to BIPAC. In all, more than 850,000 voter registration forms were downloaded through the various Prosperity Project websites. And BIPAC says it received more than 6.5 million individual visits to its state-based websites, and drew about 25 million page views. On the day before Election Day, when ClickZ reported that 623,000 unique visitors were accessing the Bush and Kerry campaign websites, BIPAC was tracking some 600,000 unique visitors through the Prosperity Project network of sites. On Election Day, another 800,000 unique visitors were through the Prosperity Project network of sites, compared to 862,000 unique users combined for the two Presidential candidates. In other words, when it mattered most, as many – and in some cases more -- people got information from the Prosperity Project as did directly from the two Presidential campaign websites combined. The effort cost BIPAC less than $10 million (compared to Democratic voter mobilization groups who reportedly spent more than $100 million).

BIPAC targeted 20 million employees in battleground states this year. Of the 160 member companies of the Business Roundtable, 91 participated. Overall, Shull said that more than 18 million employees were reached. And in Ohio, managers pointed more than 50,000 employees to a customized website featuring ratings of the candidate’s votes on business issues (one rating reportedly gave Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry a zero last year on votes affecting manufacturers).

There is no guarantee that the system produced only Republican votes. According to one article, “employees who receive information from their employers are 15 to 30 percent more likely to vote.” The article goes on to suggest a strong tendency among employees to follow their boss’s lead in picking candidates. Darrell Shull adds, “the ease of using these communications has created a new corporate culture to talk about these issues. Companies support new voter outreach measures – handing out voter guides and other materials that they wouldn’t have done before. The issues were already there. Technology just made it easier.” And post-Election surveys indicate that candidates who were rated as pro-jobs were overwhelmingly elected in both the Senate and the House.

Everyone has a theory about why Election 2004 turned out as it did, with George W. Bush winning re-election by more than 3.5 million votes (or by barely 70,000 in Ohio, depending on who you ask). Some argue that the focus on religious conservatives provided the needed push towards victory for the Republicans. If that is true, the Democrats probably never saw it coming. Others believe relatively low turnout by young people doomed John Kerry’s challenge. If that made the difference, then Republicans were lucky that this largely anti-Bush constituency didn’t show their anger at the polls. But it is hard to deny the impact that the Prosperity Project had on this year’s election.

Brian Reich is the editor of Campaign Web Review, a blog examining the use of the Internet by candidates, campaigns and organizations, activists and the media during the 2004 cycle. He was credentialed to blog the Democratic and Republican Conventions as well as the Presidential Debates. He has spent much of his life working with campaigns and political organizations, helping to direct dozens of campaigns across the country. He also served as Vice President Gore's Briefing Director in the White House and during the 2000 campaign. Brian is now a strategic consultant and Director of Boston Operations for Mindshare Interactive Campaigns.

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The Daily Kos: Machine Politics 2.0

October 28, 2004

Brian Reich

“I'm going to refrain from calling him a dirty little troll of a man who wouldn't know a lit drop from a phone bank.”

“He’s a little punk ass jerk with an over-inflated ego.”

It is the rare political insider or activist – either Republican or Democrat – that doesn’t have a few strong words to describe the figure popularly known as Kos.

Kos, of course, is Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founder and editor of The Daily Kos
(www.dailykos.com), a political blog that attracts more than half a million visitors every day. Kos is the poster-boy for Democratic blogging. He raises money, defines issues, rallies supporters, and brings scandals to light with energy and effectiveness few – online or offline – have matched. And if the Democrats pull off a victory early next month, Kos deserves his share of the credit for helping to energize the Democratic base, focusing resources on previously neglected House and Senate candidates, and nudging the Kerry campaign closer to victory.

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