Founded in April 2006 under the name Data Warehouse, Catalist is a for-profit political consultancy that seeks to “help progressive organizations realize measurable increases in civic participation and electoral success by building and operating a robust national voter database of every voting-age American.” Subscription-based access to this database, which consists of some 180 million registered voters and 85 million unregistered adults, allows clients to combine demographic and political information with commercial data to help target political messages to large groups or individuals “with unprecedented precision and effectiveness.”
Specifically, Catalist employs the technique of “microtargeting” or “narrowcasting.” This refers to the identification of a wide range of specific voter characteristics and viewpoints which, when assessed as a whole, can offer insight into which political issues are of greatest concern to potential voters within various demographic groups, and which candidate or party those voters would most likely support in a given election if they could be effectively motivated to go to the polls. The foregoing data also enable Catalist and its clients to generate individual-level models of each citizen's partisanship, likelihood of voting, and propensity to actively support a variety of issues. Armed with this information, leftist organizations conducting get-out-the-vote drives can use targeted phone calls, e-mails, and television commercials to persuade people to vote on election day.
Endowed with seed money from billionaire financier George Soros, Catalist was created by former deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Harold Ickes, who sought to furnish left-wing activists with accurate, up-to-date information about the American electorate. Lamenting that the Democratic National Committee's out-of-date voter information was “worse than having no database at all,” Ickes said at the time, “It's unclear what the DNC is doing.” He continues to serve as president of Catalist, and a number of the organization's current staffers previously worked as data managers for the DNC.
Catalist played a significant role in helping the Democrats regain control of Congress in 2006. The group's chief technology officer, Vijay Ravindran, specifically noted the success Catalist achieved in Missouri, where the organization Women's Voices, Women Vote (now known as the Voter Participation Center)—which attempts to involve unmarried women in the electoral process—used data provided by Catalist to target potential supporters on behalf of Democrat senatorial candidate Claire McCaskill. Ravindran also reported that the Sierra Club had influenced 33 political races across the United States by using Catalist's data on some 310,000 infrequent voters with an interest in environmental issues.
During the 2008 election cycle, Catalist helped Rock the Vote (RTV) tap into Facebook applications as a means of harnessing the popularity of online social networking among young voters. Nearly 1,000 RTV members used Catalist technology to reach a targeted list of more than 100,000 people during the campaign season. As election day approached, RTV volunteers used the Catalist-powered “Action Center” in their “get-out-the-vote” campaign encouraging young registrants to early-vote in key states.
That same year, the Sierra Club used Catalist data and services to make more than 100,000 voter contacts in 8 battleground states where Republican House and Senate candidates who had “consistently voted against a clean energy future” were in the environmentalist group's crosshairs.
Also in 2008, Catalist helped the AFL-CIO to plan and support its own large-scale voter-contact programs. These efforts culminated in the two weeks immediately preceding election day, when the Federation deployed some 250,000 volunteers whose goal was to turn out 13 million voters in 20 battleground states. According to Michael Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO (and former husband of Carol Browner): “Catalist is an essential part of the foundation necessary for building progressive political power in our country. The labor movement relies on the state of the art political technology services provided by Catalist and we are proud to be an early subscriber.”