With Election Day little more than three months away, the technology department at the Democratic National Committee is hiring, and evidently their desire to staff up at such a late date has a lot to do with the success of their huge voter and donor tracking system.
About three years ago, the DNC hired Plus Three, a small technology firm that specializes in IT consulting for nonprofit organizations, to help build its system. The decision came at a pivotal moment, not long before the 2002 midterm elections, when the Republican Party had had such a system up and running for some time.
The DNC, meanwhile, had a decrepit internal database running off an AS/400. It had a green-screen terminal interface, and it contained an e-mail donor list of just 70,000 people, said Doug Kelly, the DNC's technology director. "When you think that 50 million people voted for Gore, we did a dismal job."
Many observers, in fact, partly attribute the GOP's state and federal victories in that election to its far more mature, and enormous, database of voters and contributors, known as Voter Vault, about which the party is as tight-lipped as a Langley Cold Warrior.
The DNC is a little less so about its system, which is now Web-based and open-source. The system comes in two pieces: DataMart is essentially a gigantic phonebook of all the country's 166 million registered voters. The goal is to attach key information, or a voter ID, to each of those people -- party affiliation, some consumer data, how their home precinct voted, census figures, 306 slices of information in all -- and then to mine and model that data in order to perform two functions: entice voters to the booths to vote Democrat, and entice those already converted to fork over cash or, perhaps, to volunteer in some way. Essentially it's a direct-marketing system tweaked slightly for the political realm. The problem, of course, is getting all that key information attached to the names on the DataMart list. There are privacy issues to deal with, for instance, and an enormous amount of research that must be done, so the database remains incomplete.
The second piece is Demzilla, the DNC's internal transactional database, which includes the names of, and key information on, any person or group with which the DNC does business -- the Rolodex. Mostly Demzilla is a list of donors, both large and small. But it also includes volunteers, activists, local and state party leaders, and members of the press.
By phone, by direct mail and, mostly, by e-mail, people on the DataMart list are targeted with ads and political messages, tailored as much as possible to that person, based on what the DNC can dig up about their demographic information, their possible pet issues, etc. Should the person contribute or agree to volunteer, into Demzilla goes that name.
Building the system was not an easy project to undertake or complete, especially with the DNC rushing to catch up with its cross-town rival. DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, famed for his salesmanship with six-figure donors and the $5000-a-plate set, spearheaded the effort, which largely focuses on small donors, a la MoveOn.org and the early Howard Dean primary campaign. "We shamelessly steal stuff that's effective," the DNC's Kelly said. The DNC also had to broker deals with state Democratic organizations, which feed their voter information into DataMart. Quid pro quo, the information collated in DataMart and Demzilla are then used locally by the state party organs. The database effort was part of a $25 million rehab McAuliffe made of the DNC as a whole.
DNC officials will not divulge just how they're able to mine and analyze and drill down into all that data -- the BI end of the DataMart/Demzilla system -- the one aspect in which they resemble their tight-lipped Republican counterparts. "I'd rather not talk about that," Kelly said. "I can tell you after November third." He said the DNC uses a mix of BI technology developed both in-house and by outside consultants.