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Data Wars: Major Parties Fight for Total Dominance ahead of 2016

by Alex Gauthier, published
Most voters may not notice it, but the 2016 presidential election is already underway. Aside from the early announcements from Republicans like Jeb Bush, the national Republican and Democratic parties have been charting the course for 2016 since at least 2012. All the while, both major parties have been building up massive storehouses of voter data.

Information about hundreds of thousands of voters, compiled over the years from volunteer canvassers and paid staff, will be put to use to persuade and target various segments of the national voting population come election time. National Republican Party Chairman Reince Prebius has been outspoken about his party's big investment in better digital infrastructure. Meanwhile, the DNC is already doubling down on the data-driven strategies that appeared to work in 2008 and 2012.

Part of what makes corporations like the Democratic and Republican parties so influential and effective is their firm control over who does and doesn't get access to their resources -- and that doesn't just mean campaign cash.

On the Republican side, the RNC has crafted a deal with its 2016 presidential candidates that keeps the reins firmly in the hands of the national party. Bloomberg reported in January:

"In return for access to profiles of every voter in the country—registration records, demographic and consumer details from private-sector sources, along with original modeling of generic political attitudes and behavior—the [Republican] candidates will be obliged to return to the party all intelligence gathered from their own interactions with voters."

For the Democratic Party, the path for 2016 lies -- at least in part -- in the hands of President Barack Obama. Obama's campaign-outfit-turned-501(c)(4)-nonprofit, Organizing for Action, has amassed millions of emails over the course of 7 years.

The name and endorsement of a sitting president carries some weight, but what 2016 candidates like Hillary Clinton really care about is the Obama camp's massive data warehouse. Talks are already

underway as to who has dibs, and Clinton seems to be the natural choice.

The practice of controlling who has the keys to the data library of millions of email addresses, phone numbers, and political pressure points is how the RNC and DNC can maintain leverage over candidates. Without the keys to a database like that, there's no chance anyone, regardless of party affiliation, could mount a credible national campaign for president in 2016.

However, that stranglehold is starting to loosen. Open data platforms, like NationBuilder, are making inroads in the political campaign space, which empowers candidates outside the major parties with the tools needed to quickly reach voters on a large scale. Whether or not such a candidate will emerge in 2016 remains to be seen.

As for the likely presidential field, Hillary Clinton has already started recruiting former higher-ups from the Obama team like Joel Benenson, a former Obama pollster who will serve as her chief political strategist, and Jim Margolis, who is stepping into the role of Clinton's media adviser.

However, what underpins the campaign strategy for both sides is to identify and motivate only voters who are likely to vote their way and for voters who won't... well, the parties won't be too distraught if they just stay home and watch The Big Bang Theory instead. This tactic is especially beneficial when it comes to putting a candidate past the presidential primary process. The fewer people who vote or who can vote, the easier it is to decide early and cheaply who the winning candidate will be.

Photo Credit: cowardlion /  

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