Please Standby…The DNC Is Still Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Please Standby…The DNC Is Still Experiencing Technical Difficulties

BY Brian Reich | Monday, April 18 2005

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 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, 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 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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