In its latest effort to update its creaky digital systems, the Democratic National Committee is launching a new tool that will help campaigns and state parties across the country — particularly those with little tech expertise — tap into a trove of voter data to better target their messages as they work to wrangle seats at every level of government.
The DNC is touting Blueprint, a tool to help Democratic campaigns sift through data on hundreds of millions of people across the U.S., as a step towards shoring up the Democratic party's digital capabilities at a time when campaigning in person is impossible. It will help campaigns decide who to call, text, email and target with digital advertisements during this contentious and unprecedented election year and beyond.
"We're taking this rich set of data we have about voters, and we're making it really easy for campaigns to use that data," the DNC's chief technology officer Nell Thomas told Protocol in a phone interview. Now, rather than having to comb through the party's voter database themselves, campaigns at every level will have access to ready-made tables on voters' addresses, ethnicities, and voting history, among other data points, in a given area.
Thomas said Blueprint is a boon especially for down-ballot candidates, who often don't have the luxury of an in-house tech team focused on using data to mobilize prospective voters and volunteers. "Especially at smaller campaigns … the data person is also the IT person and is also the digital person," Thomas said.
"This gives those building blocks to users right away so they can spend less time doing that data-cleaning work and more time doing what really matters to campaigns, which is reaching voters," she said.
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Blueprint is part of a multi-year effort to modernize the party's data infrastructure, which was built back in 2011 for President Obama's reelection campaign. By 2016, that system, known as Vertica, became overloaded, and its near-daily breakdowns proved to be a frequent source of frustration for Hillary Clinton's staff and that of other Democratic campaigns. Meanwhile, the Republican party had spent the years since the 2012 race building itself a brand new data operation called Data Trust, which allowed outside groups and the party to exchange information they were collecting on voters.
In the wake of the 2016 loss, the DNC resolved to catch up to the Republicans' much-touted data operation that helped deliver the White House to President Trump, launching a range of new projects designed to improve upon its data infrastructure.
As part of that, the DNC and state parties agreed to create a new, outside entity called the Democratic Data Exchange, which would mirror the Republican Data Trust, allowing for data swapping between campaigns and outside groups. Last year, the party also announced it was deprecating Vertica and replacing it with a new cloud-based data warehouse called Phoenix, which is based on Google's BigQuery technology. That, the DNC's tech team said at the time, would at least provide campaigns with a more stable system that wouldn't crash under the pressure of so many campaigns using it at once.
And yet, even then, some worried that the new data warehouse would still require a data analyst with SQL coding skills to operate. Blueprint is an effort to solve that problem. The committee's tech and data teams spent months cleaning up the existing data in its warehouse. They looked for places where there were gaps — like, say, where voter's addresses were missing — and worked to fill them. It was an intensely manual project, Thomas says, but one that she hopes will save time-strapped campaigns down the line. Now, rather than doing that clean up work themselves, campaigns can browse the Blueprint tables and use that information to drive voter outreach.
The DNC has been piloting Blueprint in a number of states over the past several months, including Texas.
Last month, the Texas Democratic Party introduced a new model that scores every Texas voter from 1-100 according to how likely they are to vote for a Democratic candidate. Lauren Pully, the data and analytics director for the Texas Democratic Party, said her team used Blueprint to help expand that model and make it more effective.
This so-called "partisanship model" helps the state party more efficiently identify and target voters who might be inclined to help turn red areas blue. And Pully said Texas has used Blueprint's data to make its scoring system "even smarter," pointing out that the DNC's tool allowed the state party to access demographic and consumer data that it didn't already have. That includes information on a voter's ethnicity, neighborhood and income.
Before Blueprint, Pully said that campaigns lost lots of time processing data from dozens of different sources. Now, she said, "not every campaign that's going to use that data needs a data scientist to do it."
"This is one of many things that's being done to really modernize the infrastructure that all of the Democratic campaigns have available to them," Pully said. "Doing this at a national level means I don't have to do this in Texas while Florida does the same thing while Arizona does the same thing."
Given the party's calamitous security breach in 2016, Thomas said the DNC is taking extra security precautions to protect this data. That's one reason why the DNC chose Google's BigQuery technology. "We feel confident in Google's security program," she said. The party requires users to implement two-factor authentication before accessing the data warehouse. Users also sign agreements to abide by guidelines that prevent them from using the voter data for purposes other than campaigning.
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"We believe that privacy and security are just as critical to being good custodians of the data as making the data high-quality," Thomas said.
The DNC is working on other future data projects, including its own "partisanship model" that predicts the likelihood that someone is a Democrat or a Republican and a system that more accurately tracks voters who have moved to different states.
Ultimately, it's unclear whether any of this will help Democrats compete with Republicans, who have, after all, been building a data program since the 2012 election. They also benefit from having a sitting president in the White House whose 2020 re-election campaign began as soon as he was inaugurated and whose massive rallies over the last four years have been data gold mines for Republicans.
But whatever happens this November, it's clear the DNC's investment in data will be critical in the years to come.
Correction: This story originally misidentified the Texas Democratic Party's data and analytics director as Laura Pully. Her name is Lauren.