Sunday, June 14, 2015

Creeping Koch coup?

This post will be a little wonky but I hope of some interest. It's about what, in electoral organizing, we used to call "the damn lists" and now are more likely to call "the data." These are the files of voters that campaigns use to choose the people they seek to reach and turn out to vote. If during election season you are afflicted with calls and mailers, you've been selected by one or more campaigns to target. They have their reasons, or at least think they do.

Until quite recently, "the lists" were both expensive proprietary commodities purchased from private list vendors and full of garbage, such as names of people who had moved, died, or even never existed. Any phone numbers were as much as 50 percent wrong. The hanging chad fiasco in Florida in 2000 led to enactment of the Help American Vote Act. This federal law had a very mixed record of improving election administration, but state voter files did gradually become more accurate during the early '00s. As more state and local records came online, lists also became cheaper.

Meanwhile, internet connectivity became near universal and computers themselves became faster and cheaper. By the 2008 election cycle, well funded campaigns, especially Obama's, provided sophisticated user interfaces to their various offices and volunteer operations while keeping the data on central servers. They invested in improving that data by cross-referencing registered voters with commercial information that might suggest their leanings and interests. What had been horribly complex and clunky in the 1990s became far easier and much more efficient. (People still printed "the lists" and struggled to organize them -- see above.)

There's more going on here than just better computerization. Every time a campaign uses this voter data within the master system, that experience improves the quality of the records. Bad phone numbers and addresses get removed; sometimes new voters are even added. The quality of the information gets better.

Fast forward to the present ... according to Jon Ward writing at Yahoo News, the Republicans are currently having a struggle about just who controls their data. In 2008, they fell far behind the Dems in their data management. In the 2012 cycle, the Romney campaign tried to play catch up and create its own Republican system. This famously blew up on election day, completely screwing up Get Out The Vote operations. Ever since, both the Republican National Committee and the Koch brothers' various political ventures have been jousting over systems and most importantly who controls the underlying master data. The Koch empire has apparently created a front end called i360 that operatives consider more functional than the RNC's offering. But the Republican National Committee, not surprisingly, thinks the Party itself ought control the data.

Ward reports on the Republican national chairman's aim in this kerfuffle:

The core issue, from [Reince] Priebus’ point of view, is one of loyalty and allegiance. The RNC is a permanent entity, committed to the Republican Party without question. The Koch network is too independent from the party to be trusted with possession of the GOP’s most valuable core assets. If the Kochs — whose political history is steeped more in libertarianism than it is in any loyalty to the Republican Party — decided next week to use their database to benefit only their massive multinational corporation, they could do so.

... And the problem for the RNC is that while it has political data going back roughly two decades, you need more than just data in order to be the data hub for a political party. And that is where the RNC has fallen short. Its data is good, and it has continued to enrich it and even to help campaigns and key battleground states build sophisticated voter universes through the work last year of a company called TargetPoint. But campaigns need to use data, not just have it on the shelf. This is where companies like i360... have gained an edge.

... [The RNC] decision to take their dispute with i360 public shows the level of alarm inside the RNC at the growing clout of the Koch political empire. They have concluded that the Koch political machine wants to replace them and to essentially become a shadow party. “It’s pretty clear that they don’t want to work with the party but want to supplant it,” the source close to the RNC said.

... The fear at the RNC is that this would give a private business empire the master voter file in Republican politics, and the party’s main committee would be reduced to that of playing a bit role.

A couple of months ago, I speculated that the decision by the Supremes that billionaires could try to buy elections might lead someone to decide to dispense with all these clamoring Party pols and just purchase the presidency for himself. (I assume a male Daddy Bucks, though of course I could be wrong.) Looks like at the moment the Kochs are maneuvering for a somewhat unfriendly takeover of an entire political Party. This is dangerous to democracy, because for all their faults, political parties are mass-based citizen organizations. But it sure is "pass the popcorn" territory for political junkies.
In the 1990s when I was training community organizations how to get into the electoral arena, hardly any of them could afford "the lists." They were begging, borrowing and stealing from whatever political or union sources might give them data to work with. One of the first points I made to these groups was always: whoever provides the voter data determines what your campaign is accomplishing. And if you don't know their interest in supplying you, you are opening yourselves to being used. Still true, but the scale looks much larger among Republicans at the moment.


Rain Trueax said...

I intensely dislike political phone calls and because we donate more than the average, we get more than the average in calls-- my emails are even more infiltrated. Literally, those phone lists need to take into account who the person is and whether they will be more annoyed at the call than it helps the candidate. I know I never donate anything based on a phone call. I am suspicious of them. When I want to donate, I know how to find where. I realize not all are like me and some maybe don't mind the calls but just because someone donates does not mean they should be bombarded-- and maybe it even means let them alone as they already showed their interest. I try to be polite to the callers as some are doing it as a job and some out of genuine fervor for the candidate or party. It never though is a good thing on my end. It interrupts my work or has me running to catch a phone call and is a waste of the callers time too. I wonder how much it benefits the candidates and snail mail has me wondering the same thing as most of it goes straight to the garbage in our house. People want to donate their time but maybe more thought needs to be put into what really helps. A list of those who have donated to other like candidates might not be it.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Rain: you are part of a decreasing number of people who will answer phones at all. Campaigns are afflicting smaller numbers with more calls in consequence. Do try telling callers that you don't want to be called -- the better candidates and calling companies will put you on a "do not call" list.

Rain Trueax said...

We tell them, Jan but it doesn't seem to take. I suspect they pass on these lists and the first one you tell gets the message, the rest, not. It won't stop us from donating to our candidates as that would be cutting off our noses to spite our faces. Almost always it's one of those calls without an ID; so it's hard to not answer it just in case.

Hattie said...

I never pick up a phone call unless I know who the caller is from looking at the caller I.D. If it's important, they can leave a message or I can pick it up once I know who it is.

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