A Listless Party

Like other journalists, I first heard of the Democratic Senate opposition agenda, proposed by Minority Leader Harry Reid in late January, by e-mail -- specifically, an e-mail that came from Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ken Mehlman. The correspondence sarcastically noted that “[t]he ten-point plan Sen. Reid presented today may be called the American ‘promise,' but Reid only seems to be promising to continue blocking the American people's priorities.”

Should Democrats worry that a Republican got the first word on the Democratic leader's agenda? They could excuse it as a fluke: Reid's fledgling Senate Democratic Communications Center, the so-called Senate war room, was still gearing up in January, and the group had lost its communications director after just two weeks in operation, leaving it undermanned and with a half-finished press list. But pull the thread a little bit and you find some important differences between Republican and Democratic post-election organizing efforts. I hadn't signed up to receive press e-mails from the RNC communications office, but they started arriving in my in-box thanks to a transfer of names and contact information from the disbanded Bush-Cheney '04 campaign to the RNC. “We've done an internal audit so that folks we feel should be getting information are,” explained RNC deputy communications director Danny Diaz.

It was a small and simple thing, but no similar handover of information took place on the Democratic side. When I asked former Kerry communications director Stephanie Cutter if there had been any demand from Democrats for John Kerry's comprehensive, up-to-date, nationwide press lists, she just laughed. “No,” she said. “Most Democratic organizations have very thorough press lists as it is.” Cutter, who has returned to her perch in the offices of Senator Edward Kennedy, suggested that I speak to campaign spokesman David Wade, now back in Kerry's Senate office. He had a copy of the list, as did Cutter, but neither of them had yet used it to expand their bosses' media reach. And no one had turned over a copy to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), nor had anyone at the committee requested one. The lists likewise were not sent to Reid's Senate press office, the new Capitol Hill node for pushing the out-of-power Democrats' message.

This is not an aberration. There is another, even more important list that the Kerry team is holding on to -- a list containing the e-mail addresses of approximately 2.75 million Kerry donors, volunteers, and supporters. This list is the single most valuable one in Democratic Party history. “It was worth $122 million to the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party,” says Zack Exley, the former director of Internet organizing and communications for Kerry-Edwards '04. But thanks to the wording of Kerry's online privacy policy during the primary, which promised to bar the forwarding of supporters' e-mail addresses to anyone outside the campaign, this list is now the proprietary possession of the junior Massachusetts senator. “It's John Kerry's property. It was his campaign,” says Tom Matzzie, former director of Internet organizing for the Kerry campaign and now Washington director of the online activist group MoveOn. To get it, “the DNC would have to buy it from him.” Indeed, Federal Election Commission (FEC) laws seem to require it.

Kerry list-makers and DNC technology operatives say that they have done all they legally can to transfer Kerry supporter names to the DNC. After the Democratic national convention, for example, Kerry sent letters to his list via the DNC servers asking that donations be made to the DNC. Millions poured into the national party's coffers, and with each donation came a name and e-mail address previously in Kerry's possession.

But if you think the laws on privacy and assets of value are fixed obstacles, think again. The Bush-Cheney '04 campaign wrote its privacy policy so that it could share its supporters', donors', and volunteers' e-mail addresses with the national and state parties. (So did the campaign of incoming DNC Chairman Howard Dean.) And, during the presidential campaign, the Bush team conducted multiple e-mail address exchanges with the RNC, which is an allowed exchange of assets of equal value under FEC rules. The net result: The Bush campaign has decommissioned, but the RNC is continuing to contact the roughly 1.4 million volunteers and community leaders it organized online.

Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats have no online base they can organize on their behalf to fight Bush's priorities, and Kerry is using his e-mail list to push items on his personal legislative agenda, such as his “Put Kids First” campaign to expand Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover 11 million uninsured children, which have little chance of being written into law this year. “A lot of these organizations remind me of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: ‘My precious, my preciousss!' with the emphasis on ‘my,'” notes Joe Trippi, former Dean campaign manager, of the campaigns. “Everyone hoards lists.”

The raw numbers of donors and supporters on these lists don't tell the whole story. The quality of the names also matters. The DNC maintains its own database of 3.8 million e-mail contacts, says DNC technology director Doug Kelly. Kelly says this database was grown organically since the DNC launched its current Web site and online campaigns in 2002, gaining close to a million new names during the presidential general election alone. “We didn't buy” the names, he says.

Not so, say others familiar with the DNC list growth. They say the DNC has, at most, a list of less than half that many usable e-mail addresses; millions more were purchased from consumer databases such as those maintained by the credit-rating company Equifax. And purchased lists, once believed to be the quickest route to growing an online audience, are now known to be virtually useless. An “open rate” on an organically grown list should be at least 25 percent, says Exley, meaning that about a quarter to half of e-mail recipients at least skim it. Over time, on healthy lists, three-quarters or more will open messages, as different subsets of the list read different missives. But on bought lists, open rates are usually less than 10 percent -- sometimes much less. Bought lists also tend to be full of dead addresses. Plus, people with live addresses who receive unsolicited and unwanted e-mails on bought lists can report political e-mails as spam in large enough numbers that entire service providers, such as yahoo.com or hotmail.com, may block all future DNC or RNC communications. That makes organically grown lists, such as Kerry's, that much more valuable. The majority of the addresses in the RNC database -- which Michael Turk, director of e-Campaigns for the RNC and former e-campaign director for Bush-Cheney '04, says is now close to 8 million strong -- come from similarly bought lists, according to Exley. That's why the RNC is so eager to focus on the subset of 1.4 million volunteer and supporter names collected by the Bush campaign.

For similar technical reasons, even Kerry's list may not be as valuable as Bush's. The Kerry campaign built its list through an “opt-in” process. About a third of its members came after Kerry told a TV audience to go to johnkerry.com, another million or so were recruited through online petitions, and 200,000 signed up the night Kerry spoke at the Democratic convention. The Bush team, by contrast, collected signatures at state party conventions, state fairs, and state Lincoln Day dinners, plus the exclusive Bush-Cheney political rallies closed to Kerry supporters. “We tried to make e-mail recruitment a part of everything we did,” says Turk. That means Kerry's list is full of random people who looked him up on the Web, and whom Kerry mainly contacted with fund-raising solicitations, while Bush's list is more focused on politically active community leaders who can be fruitfully organized in the future.

This difference in outreach perspective has persisted after the campaign, and is reflected on the parties' Web sites. The DNC provides only one contact number on its site, while the RNC provides an easily navigable “Contact Us” page with different numbers for a variety of functions, making the page more useful for directing insiders and recruiting outsiders alike. The RNC site, designed by Mike Connell's award-winning Ohio-based Internet firm New Media Communications, has scrolling text, pictures, and all kinds of bells and whistles to keep the viewer there, clicking through material. New Media also designs for a who's who of conservative causes, such the National Rifle Association and Citizens for Tax Repeal, making it an expert in creating friendly sites for right-wingers. By contrast, the DNC site, designed by Kelly's subordinates in-house at the DNC, is a bare-bones operation with few pictures, written in dated fonts and providing outdated material in critical areas. Pity, for example, the poor cub reporter in New Mexico who thinks the DNC's communications director is still Debra DeShong, as the DNC Web site stated as late as February 2005. DeShong left the DNC in June 2004.

It's in just such patterns that the seeds of defeat or victory in 2008 are already being sown. Republicans, who operated as a unified front in 2004, have by and large shifted the important data gathered by the Bush-Cheney campaign over to the RNC. The Democrats have pursued a more scattershot course designed to promote individual advantage for former staffers and candidates, rather than to build for the party as a whole. Even when Kerry's Internet team offered to write a “best practices and lessons learned” report about the campaign, Kerry campaign higher-ups failed to requisition it. “I found it was interesting that they had hindered themselves in that way,” says Turk of the Kerry privacy policy.

Still, some say the Democrats will learn from their defeat. “In 2008, I think you'll see it differently,” says Trippi. Of course, Democrats don't have to wait that long to become more coordinated and united. There are simple ways for Kerry to get around his own privacy policy. Already, post-election, he has sent a message to members of his list suggesting that they might want to keep fighting as part of a team -- by donating to the DNC.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.

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