'CATALIST': Obama's Database for Fundamentally Transforming America

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.

cat 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. as

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.