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—essentially every adult in the United States—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.”
According to former Justice Department official J. Christian Adams, whose writings and analysis have shed much light on Catalist's immense political significance:
“[T]he 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.”
By incorporating into one massive database the types of information enumerated above, Catalist enables leftist political candidates and their campaigns to employ 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 enables 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, home visits, e-mails, and television commercials to persuade people to vote on election day.
J. Christian Adams points out that microtargeting has rendered obsolete—for Democrats who make use of Catalist's database—the traditional strategy of having candidates pivot toward the political center in the aftermath of their party primaries. The “granular,” individualized data that Catalist provides about millions of potential voters allows left-wing candidates to appeal openly, as leftists rather than moderates, to their political base with messaging that is very carefully and personally tailored to identify the issues, concerns, or other lifestyle facts most likely to make an emotional impact on leftists—particularly those who, in the absence of contact from Catalist, would be unlikely to vote. As Adams puts it, “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.” In short, it enables leftist office-seekers to “use new databases to fundamentally transform America.”
Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, Adams notes, “largely ignored the middle and instead used Catalist data to wring out nearly every possible far-left vote they could.” The president communicated a leftist message throughout the campaign and simultaneously used Catalist to expand his base, thereby making an appeal to centrists unnecessary.
Republican Mitt Romney, by contrast, pivoted to the middle after the primaries and spent a great deal of time and money trying to attract moderate and independent voters. But “at the same time,” explains Adams, “Romney distanced himself from his easier-to-motivate … base. [He] wouldn’t even go on conservative talk radio, for free.” This strategy, of course, proved to be unsuccessful; while Romney won the moderate vote by a large margin, he lost the election—in large part because he failed to appeal to voters hungry for a conservative message.
It should be noted that there is also an economic, as well as a political, rationale to Catalist's approach. As Adams explains: “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.' … 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.” (Emphasis in original)
Catalist's influence on the American political process cannot be overstated. It is “a game changer not just for politics, but for policy,” says Adams. “It is the left’s machinery for fundamentally transforming America.” The Republican Party, meanwhile, has nothing even remotely resembling Catalist as a centralized database.
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.”