Democrats to launch new voter database with Dean at the helm
WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is declaring a major victory ahead of the 2020 presidential election, with the help of one of his most well-known predecessors.
Howard Dean, the one-time presidential candidate, former Vermont governor and ex-DNC chairman, is set to head a new data exchange operation that Democrats hope puts them back on par with Republicans in the never-ending race to use voter data to drive Americans to the polls.
State party leaders on Wednesday approved the arrangement hammered out by DNC officials, state party leaders and Democratic consultants. The vote ends more than 18 months of internal party wrangling that has dogged Perez amid fights over money and control.
“This is game-changing for how we do business for years to come across the Democratic Party ecosystem,” Perez told The Associated Press.
Dean called it “a big breakthrough” that will match what Republicans have established. “I’d sort of given up that we could get it done,” Dean said.
The arrangement would allow the national party, state parties and independent political action groups on the left to share voter data in real time during campaigns. That means, for example, that a field worker for a congressional campaign in Iowa and another for an independent political action committee knocking on doors in Florida could update a master voter file essentially as they work. When a presidential campaign spends big money on consumer data to update voter profiles, the new information would go into the central file as well. And all participating organizations would have access to the latest information.
Parties, campaigns and PACs use that kind of voter data to decide which voters to call and who to visit in person or to determine which voters receive targeted digital ads on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, among other things.
Currently, political action groups on the left must gather, update and use data independently from the party.
Guy Cecil, who runs the leading Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, confirmed his group plans to join the exchange. Perez said he envisions adding organized labor groups and Planned Parenthood, along with PACs tied to Democratic congressional leaders.
Perez made a Democratic data exchange a top priority after Republicans used their own version to help Donald Trump win the White House in 2016.
“We were fighting elections with one hand tied behind our back,” Perez said. But the chairman ran into resistance from state parties that have long controlled their own voter files and used them as a revenue source by selling them to candidates.
Party officials say the new model still allows state parties to withhold certain data from the central exchange if they choose and to sell their files to campaigns. And Democrats at party headquarters and in the states say Dean’s participation helped allay concerns.
Dean, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 before becoming chairman, has established relationships with national party heavyweights, including Perez. He enjoyed special prominence among state parties because of his “50-state strategy” while leading Democrats during President George W. Bush’s second term.
“He’s really a unique person in the DNC,” said Mary Beth Cahill, a top Perez lieutenant who led the negotiations and who managed John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign that defeated Dean. “He seems like one of the best signals we could send” to get everyone on board.
Perez called Dean a “known commodity,” but he also singled out Cahill for praise, saying she pulled party factions together to cement a deal.
The new exchange will operate as an independent for-profit enterprise led initially by Democratic strategist Jen O’Malley Dillon, once a top adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Martin and Perez would chair a party committee that would license the party’s voter files to O’Malley Dillon’s group, which would establish its own agreements with PACs and other groups. Dean would chair the governing board of the new outfit, and once assembled, that board will hire staff to run the operation.
Republicans’ data trust was a key achievement of then-GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who wanted an answer to President Barack Obama’s use of data in his two national victories.
The Republican National Committee’s work caught Democrats off guard in 2016 amid widespread scoffing at Trump’s open mockery of using data to target voters. But Democrats ignored that Republican machinery had been building GOP voter files for years with help of other organizations on the right and that Democrats’ 2008 and 2012 successes had been Obama’s, not the party’s.
The GOP’s independent group and the Democrats’ planned exchange are necessary to comply with Federal Election Commission rules that bar coordination among independent groups, campaigns and certain party organizations.
The FEC didn’t waive that ban but blessed the GOP model, arguing that the exchanges simply allow various organizations to share data without knowing which organizations have gathered which piece of information. Certain organizations are still banned from coordinating how they use that data. So a super PAC can’t confer with a presidential campaign on which advertising they are running in which swing state, but the groups can make separate decisions with the same dataset.
“This is the single best thing we can do for the nominee” in 2020, Cahill said.
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