How Democrats Unlocked Karl Rove's Secrets and Propelled Obama to Victory
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Laura Quinn was something of an accidental technologist: a communications aide always looking for the newest way to get a message out. After Al Gore’s loss, newly elected DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe hired Quinn to prepare a report on the party’s tech infrastructure. “It was really a terrible mess,” Quinn says.
The physical decay of the Democratic National Committee was the inevitable result of a cycle of strategic disinvestment. The DNC’s election-year job was largely to be a fund-raising vehicle for the big-dollar contributions known as “soft money”: unrestricted gifts, often from union and corporate sources, that the parties could legally raise but candidates could not.
McAuliffe had risen in national politics as a fundraiser for Bill Clinton, and together they had helped to expand the Democrats’ reach into Hollywood and Wall Street wallets, narrowing the soft-money gap between the parties. But the DNC still lagged significantly in raising so-called hard money, small contributions from everyday people.
Quinn looked enviously at the RNC headquarters, two blocks away and across a set of railroad tracks. It had always been a more stable, centralized entity than the centrifugal DNC. National Republicans effectively ran their state parties from Washington, even paying the salaries of executive directors. Democratic state chairs, on the other hand, were frequently appointed by the governor or an influential legislator and felt little fealty to national leaders. As she closely examined parties’ spending over the previous two decades, Quinn marveled at how the opposition had repeatedly made farsighted investments in new communication technologies. For a generation, conservatives distrustful of the mainstream media had made a priority of finding new channels to directly address their base.
But when he became chairman in early 2001, McAuliffe was already looking ahead to the ways in which life would change under the campaign finance reform bill known as McCain-Feingold, which vowed to ban soft money. McAuliffe foresaw that the national parties would be forced to reinvent themselves as engines of small-dollar contributions. Ironically, the soft-money parity that McAuliffe had helped to achieve during Clinton’s presidency now made the party disproportionately dependent on a mode of giving that would soon become illegal. The DNC had to learn to talk to people.
In April, Quinn returned to McAuliffe with her assessment of the infrastructure, which was filled with reasons for alarm. McAuliffe fixated on one set of statistics: the DNC’s list of names — donors and volunteers, mostly — totaled two million, and for many of those Quinn feared the information on file was no longer current. The e-mail list included only 70,000 people. The party had little capacity to hunt for other loyal Democrats who could be converted into contributors.
The RNC had begun its own project to find Republicans in the late 1970s, hiring private vendors to collect information on voters in all 50 states, standardize its format, and develop a system that could be continuously updated with new voters, changed addresses, and expanded vote histories. The Constitution leaves responsibility for administering elections to the states, and RNC officials quickly learned what a roughhewn patchwork of laws and protocols had emerged to simply manage voter registration practices. In New Hampshire, each of the state’s 234 townships was responsible for maintaining its own registration records, many times on handwritten rolls stored in officials’ homes. In Montana, Republicans had to send someone to gather computer tapes from every court house in the state.
Quinn knew this history. But along with the technological and logistical hurdles, there was a political one: a network of state parties ready to thwart any of Washington’s efforts to seize one of their most prized commodities. In some cases, party officers used the list as a fund-raising device — presidential candidates in Iowa had to pay $40,000 for its list of past caucus participants. In other states, kingmaker state chairs considered the list a plum to be shared with party- endorsed candidates.