‘CATALIST’: Obama’s Database for Fundamentally Transforming America

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This column by ACRU Policy Board Member J. Christian Adams was published on September 17, 2014 on PJ Media.

The Democrats and the institutional left have a new political tool that allows them to virtually ignore moderates yet still win elections.

This tool, the Catalist database, was employed in the 2012 election. That election defied conventional wisdom: Mitt Romney sought and won independent voters overwhelmingly, but still lost. If you wondered why the conventional wisdom about independents and moderates didn’t seem so wise in 2012, the answer is Catalist.

Beyond winning elections, Catalist also allows the Democrats to turn the policy narrative upside down and suffer no political consequence for implementing radical policies which appeal to their base. The Obama administration’s lurch to the far left without consequence can be understood by understanding Catalist. Obama thrives politically by satisfying his base. Simply, Catalist is a game changer not just for politics, but for policy. It is the left’s machinery for fundamentally transforming America.

And candidates, organizations, strategists, and consultants who do not understand what they are up against in Catalist risk being overrun.

I’ll explain how it works in a moment. I had the opportunity to explore the functionality and architecture of Catalist in a way few —- if any —- others on the opposite side of Catalist have had, and what I discovered sure explains a lot about the last six years.

No longer are Democrats anchored to the preferences of Americans in the middle. Bill Clinton’s triangulation is as obsolete as color film and bag phones. Obama has pushed policies far outside the mainstream, and even far outside popular will, but succeeded in wringing out an Electoral College majority in 2012 because of Catalist.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no functioning counterpart data tool to Catalist. They have multiple and competing shells of Catalist, but they have nothing on the collaborative scale as Catalist, largely due to the fact that Republicans won’t collaborate and are fiercely territorial of their competing data sets. Democrats and the institutional left, in contrast, have created a collaborative and fully integrated system that allows them to ignore the middle while extracting unprecedented turnout from a micro-targeted, ideologically far-left base.

Catalist is an example of the consultant, profit-driven culture of the GOP being beaten by the messianic crusader culture of the left.

During the 2012 election, a producer for a conservative news network received a knock at his door in a key swing state. Two neighbors were standing on his stoop campaigning for Obama. They weren’t there to talk to him —- they were there to talk to his wife. They knew that she was employed in a profession which the Obama campaign had decided to microtarget: folks who deliver services to special needs children. The two neighbors were already armed with this personalized information. The Obama campaign didn’t just send a direct mail piece to the target or make a telephone call. Instead, the campaign matched a microtargeted demographic (special needs service providers) with a highly motivated Obama volunteer in close neighborly proximity to the target. Then they armed the neighbor/volunteer with data to visit the target.

The best the GOP has done to mimic this event is to give “walk and knock” lists to volunteers who are not from the neighborhood, and certainly not armed with particular messaging. Or, the GOP bothers the target with telephone calls or a direct mail campaign containing at best a whiff of microtargeting.
The second example involves a recent statewide election. In a state where one Democrat and one Republican must be appointed to run each precinct, an election official described for me a problem encountered with the Democratic Party. It seems the Democrat she nominated to run the polls wasn’t sufficiently ideologically pure. What evidence did the party have to object to her bona fides? A response to a telephone survey many years earlier in which the nominated poll official wasn’t supporting the Democratic nominee for United States Senate.

Republicans don’t have anything even close to this sort of data, where answers to poll questions in years past could be employed in future fights.

The development and use of Catalist by the left has serious political consequences for Republicans in Congress, consequences I fear consultants, candidates, and strategists haven’t even begun to contemplate. Consider the course charted by some GOP leaders: while they have sought to steer a middle course between Democrats and the Tea Party, Catalist is rendering moderation obsolete.

Steering a moderate (and cautious) course made perfect sense before Catalist. But now, failing to appeal to an activated and motivated political base spells doom, as the last two presidential elections have demonstrated.


Catalist grew out of the 2004 presidential election, where the Bush campaign enjoyed success in part because of a microtargeting strategy. Magazine subscription lists and church directories, for example, provided a way to identify and contact broad subsets of voters through direct mail or other generic contact. This success led Harold Ickes and other progressives to attempt to build a better mousetrap that helps progressives. It was first used by Obama in 2008, and was used with devastating effectiveness in his 2012 reelection.

To understand the power of Catalist, you must understand the complex Catalist architecture, and how it is different than anything used by the GOP or conservative causes.

Imagine the Borg in Star Trek. Every Borg unit can see what all the other units see. They share data and react in unison.

Similarly, the data feeding the central Catalist database are coming from a wide swath of sources. Public records, pollsters, campaigns, non-profits, activist groups, unions, parties, commercial data —- scores and scores of sources are feeding the central database data.

For example, when an environmental group does neighborhood door knocking for cash, the results of those contacts are fed into Catalist.

You have your own individual voter file in Catalist. Everyone does. Under that file might be a massive amount of information about you —- more than probably exists in any other database in the world. Whom you work for, what car you might drive, donations you have made, assumptions based on your neighborhood, anything in a public government database about you, consumer preferences, partisan preferences, what licenses you have, what you might have said to pollsters on the phone, memberships, how you treated the young left-wing activist knocking on your door a few years ago, and on and on and on.

Each group working with Catalist feeds the central database. Different groups have different types of data about you. Some data relate to economics. Other data relate to politics. Either way, the Borg all work in unison to fill the database with a massive amount of information about every American —- and all of it is perfectly legal.

Catalyst 1

From the Catalist Website

In the vast central database, these data are organized, structured and housed by Catalist, a limited liability company with offices in Washington, D.C. If you contribute data to the database, you can also be a customer of the database. And the customer list is vast —- including the effort to reelect President Obama. Customers receive tailored information to suit their needs and microtarget voters.

Catalist provides much more sophisticated and much more granular data about subsets of Americans. The degree of granularity was never possible before Catalist, and Republicans have nothing to match it, for now.

The most important thing Catalist allows the left to do is drive deeper into the pool of extreme left-wing Americans who are otherwise unmotivated to actually vote.

Catalist allows customers to identify potential voters on the far ideological fringe, but who are usually unmotivated to vote. Catalist allows the left to then identify issues, concerns, or other lifestyle facts which would permit a customer to motivate the usually unmotivated on that fringe to vote.

Obama won reelection because he drove deeper into his ideological base than any Democrat ever had. His campaign largely ignored the middle and instead used Catalist data to wring out nearly every possible far-left vote they could.

Consider this graph below. The x axis represents the ideological spectrum. The y axis represents the likelihood of a particular voter on that spectrum actually registering and turning out to vote. You can see where each campaign in 2012 roughly placed emphasis.

Catalyst 2

While Romney pivoted to the middle after the primaries and tried to attract moderate and independent voters, Obama used Catalist to create a bigger base. Obama’s message was a leftist message, even during the debates. The idea was to drive turnout on the far left (x axis) and to identify Americans on the far left who would usually be unmotivated to vote.

Catalist gave the campaign the tools to identify them, to understand what matters to them, to find them, and to motivate them. The far-left campaign messaging of Obama was not a mistake. It was part of the plan.

Catalist allowed the Obama campaign to send a familiar neighbor knocking on the door of a teacher of special needs kids in a swing state, even if her husband works for one of the largest conservative news outlets.

Catalist is also devastating to Republicans because it sends them on an expensive goose chase to spend gobs of money to target moderates and independents while Democrats turn out their base cheaper, and with more certainty. A “moderate” voter costs more to persuade than a far fringe ideological leftist. Even a usually politically unmotivated welfare recipient is cheaper to get to the polls than a “moderate” and “thoughtful” undecided moderate who speaks in terms of “voting for the candidate on issues and not the party.”

Looking at the graph atop the next page, you can see how targeting the base instead of targeting the middle produces economic efficiencies.

Catalyst 3

A moderate/independent who is fairly likely to vote might require $1 of campaign spending to produce a successful outcome. Moderates are by their nature harder to persuade to vote a certain way. Yet a leftist with the same propensity to turn out might cost a dime to motivate them to vote, as long as that same voter thinks you share the priorities of the base.

Hence, Mitt Romney spent time and money trying to capture the contemplative middle while Obama used Catalist data to wring out more votes from the far-left base. Even worse, at the same time, Romney distanced himself from his easier-to-motivate (and cheaper to get) base.

Romney wouldn’t even go on conservative talk radio, for free.

The graphs above explain why the left is so keen to implement federal laws like Motor Voter which seek to automatically register voters populating the upper left of the graphs —- unmotivated ideological leftists. Motor Voter has a disproportionate reach into the upper left corner of the graphs as compared to the upper right. Automatic universal voter registration using government databases is the institutional left’s next agenda item.

The policy ramifications for Republicans should be obvious by now. Government policy is fully integrated into the Catalist-driven Obama politics. Instead of moderation, Obama pushes policies which appeal to his far-left base. The era of big government and big deficits is back, deliberately.

Catalist gave Obama in 2012 the political tools to fundamentally transform America without electoral consequence. Obama’s opposition was stuck in the pre-Catalist era of less defined, less complete datasets. It was a prescription for political disaster, like horse-mounted soldiers facing tanks.

I came to learn intimately about Catalist through the course of election-integrity litigation brought against the state of Indiana. Indiana has been characterized by having multiple counties with more voters on the rolls than people alive. Like Eric Holder before him, when Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller (R) needed an expert to fight against election integrity, he called on someone using Catalist data.

Enter Yale political science professor Eitan D. Hersh. Hersh had been busy helping Eric Holder’s Justice Department attack voter ID in Texas and another state. But when the Indiana attorney general needed a left-leaning professor using the progressive movement’s top data tool to deflect our election-integrity litigation, Hersh was the man. Never mind that the use of Catalist to attack Texas voter ID had become a laughingstock.

There is no telling what the taxpayers in Indiana paid Hersh to help keep voter rolls there dirty.

Eitan Hersh is a name every political strategist and GOP consultant should know —- if for no other reason than to read his Harvard dissertation describing the internal functioning of Catalist. I did. Anyone can go read it.

If you don’t want to go to Harvard, you can access it online and buy a PDF version here, though I’d prefer Hersh not be enriched any further than Eric Holder and Indiana Attorney General Zoeller have already done.

Hersh was given unparalleled access to the Obama campaign operations and how Catalist was used. His dissertation abstract gives you a taste of what is inside the dissertation:

To understand the role of information in strategic decision-making, I investigate a database containing all registered voters in the United States that is used by actual campaigns for the purpose of voter contact. Three essays relay the findings from this database and from interviews with campaign operatives. The first essay explores strategies for identifying likely partisan supporters… The second essay explores strategies for identifying persuadable voters. On account of data limitations, the voters that campaigns typically target with persuasion messages are a completely different set of individuals from those who would appear to be undecided, independent, or cross-pressured according to survey measures. The third essay explores the role of racial identifiers that are listed on the public record in eight southern states. When racial data is available, candidates sort the electorate by race, leading to the mobilization of voters whose races are identified and to racial polarization of voters into different parties. The role of information in guiding campaign strategy challenges extant models of political mobilization and identifies important political consequences of the recent and dramatic developments in data availability.

Simply put, Hersh’s deposition describes how to drive deeper into the left-wing base, how to identify your unmotivated allies (sometimes with racial cues), and how to use new databases to fundamentally transform America.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, was also involved in the election-integrity litigation against Indiana for corrupted voter rolls. He told me:

Catalist’s president is the notorious Harold Ickes who, while working at the Clinton White House, became known as Bill Clinton’s “garbage man” because of his involvement in the Clinton fundraising scandals. Nevertheless, he remains close to the Clinton machine and may be one of the most influential leftwing political operatives of the last 30 years. Given Catalist’s partisan and hard Left links, how could any Department of Justice — or, for that matter, Republican officials in the state of Indiana — rely on it to attack election integrity efforts in federal court?

Fitton is right. Catalist will be fully deployed in the 2016 effort to keep the White House.

But why shouldn’t Republicans simply microtarget unmotivated independents in response? Why not push moderate policies to appeal to those moderate independents who don’t usually vote, and microtarget them?

Remember, getting those moderate voters to vote for you costs exponentially more than motivating ideologues. It will cost $10 to persuade an unmotivated independent while it might cost pennies to mobilize a cultural or ideological partisan.

Some of you reading this might think this is much ado about nothing, because the Republicans can match the power of Catalist. Think again.

When I first approached one political insider about how to dissect Hersh in his upcoming expert deposition some months ago, he understandably could not believe that the Obama campaign would have given an academic writing a dissertation insider access to their data tools and strategies to use them. And therein lies the central mind-block to why the GOP has not matched Catalist.

The power of Catalist is driven by left-wing collaboration. All of the Borg-like groups work in unison to feed the database. Meanwhile, the Republicans don’t even have one single unified database. There are three or four separate conservative competitors, perhaps more if you count the RNC’s recent push to create yet another one.

Instead of unified data collaboration, the conservative response is competition between vendors to create their own marketable but inferior version of Catalist. Worse still, these vendors would never dream of consolidating their architecture or sharing their data. That would wreck their business model.

The strength and power of Catalist is based on the huge number of groups feeding it data. Leftist players sacrifice their egos for the larger messianic call of destroying Republicans, obliterating conservatives, and ultimately gutting the Constitution. Non-profit interest groups on the left gladly feed their internal data into Catalist because it helps progressives win, period. They don’t care about profit, glory, connections, or a new car.

As far as I can tell, conservative database models don’t capture anywhere near the level of inputs that Catalist does.

Catalist does not derive its power because it has the insiders imprimatur as the official party-sanctioned database. It derives its power because nobody feeding it data cares about who gets the glory. They have a country to transform.

So pay attention to whether or not the folks in Washington, D.C., understand Catalist, have read Hersh’s deposition, or have figured out why Romney lost in 2012. Pay attention to whether Republican polices seemed designed to energize a base, or whether they sound like Democrat-lite. If Republicans and conservatives don’t come to understand Catalist and cooperate to create a credible competitor, we are likely to see more horsemen charging at tanks in the next few presidential elections.