Recently I attended a briefing at the Democratic National Committee intended to impress reporters with the newfangled technology the party plans to use to change the midterm-election landscape. Staffers pulled up a slide cheekily showing the file the party’s voter database has archived of one Reinhold R. Priebus of Wisconsin—the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Despite the entry listing his “likely party” as Republican, with 100 percent certainty, Priebus had thrice been contacted by Democratic campaigns, it said.
Files like these, and the databases into which they could be compiled, would be Democrats’ edge in upcoming elections, the officials hosting the briefing insisted. Through precision targeting and data, campaigns from the local to the congressional to the state level could figure out which voters to talk to and deploy volunteers and staff to cajole them from their homes to vote. State-of-the-art technology would tap into people’s Facebook networks or point them to the correct polling place. Modeling would predict within a narrow range how the election would turn out and dispatch monitors for a possible recount. The tools all had code names: Explorer, Airwolf, Project Ivy.
The briefing inspired a spate of coverage about all the fancy new ways Democrats hoped to engineer their way to electoral victory. For proof, the party pointed to the narrow victory of Terry McAuliffe, elected governor of Virginia in November 2013. (As for the Democratic candidate who fell to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by a 22-point margin that same day, the DNC said her campaign was not “structured to take advantage of” the tools.) And yet, a few weeks later, the shoe was on the other foot. Last month, it was Republicans who were doing a victory lap after their candidate triumphed in a closely watched Florida special congressional election. The newly minted congressman owed his win, Republicans announced afterward, to a shiny new data-and-voter-file integration system—codename: Honeybadger.
In short, claims that one party or the other has built up a tactical advantage based on the latest in campaign science are always to be taken with a grain of salt. Political scientists have trouble detecting major effects on elections from even the most intensive campaign efforts. Party committees’ boasts about their tactical arsenals are probably largely for the benefit of their donors, who must be reassured their money is going somewhere useful. (Why else would they reveal techniques that surely would be all the more effective if they caught opponents unawares?) As it happens, the DNC is more than $10 million in debt.
But for Democrats, the emphasis on magic tricks is a symptom of something else as well: the difficult landscape the party confronts in 2014. The underlying factors the political scientists look at to make their predictions—a middling economy, an unpopular Democratic president—are stacked against them. Redistricting tilts the House against them, while their Senate incumbents were last elected in 2008, when the heady Obama coattails helped power them to victory in normally red states. The demographic groups from which the party drew its strength in 2012 and 2008—minorities, young people, single women—have been less inclined to vote in non-presidential elections in recent years. And so, to stave off disaster, Democrats need to get more of those people to vote. All the tools in their arsenal—as well as a stable of “election protection” efforts targeting alleged vote suppression—are aimed at finding those latent Democratic voters and shaking them out of their houses.