Stephen Handwerk is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
Eight years ago, almost immediately after I began as Executive Director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, our newly-elected Chair Karen Carter Peterson and Executive Committee recognized that unless we made a series of strategic investments, Republican candidates, particularly those running in statewide elections, would continue to enjoy a significant structural advantage.
Louisiana Democrats have the numbers. Despite the gains made by the GOP during the aftermath of party realignment, in which the so-called “Dixiecrats,” resentful of the progress made during the Civil Rights movement, coalesced behind a new Louisiana Republican Party, the majority of the state’s electorate share our values.
Our first task was to ensure we would have a more sophisticated and reliable way to reach out to those voters, which has become increasingly more challenging in an era dominated by toxic partisanship, widespread disinformation, and persistent voter suppression.
The early investments that came from that process allowed us to use highly targeted data in the coordinated campaign, Victory for Louisiana, that we created to assist Gov. Edwards’ re-election, offering a template for how we should approach future elections.
This year, the party focused on streamlining operations, augmenting regional offices, and investing in GOTV (Get Out The Vote) efforts. In addition, we also played a supporting role in communications and research.
Without question, the infrastructure we built over the past eight years allowed us to manage these tasks efficiently. I frequently tell people that one significant part of my job is keeping a fully stocked and up-to-date toolbox and to provide the training that campaigns need to be able to use all parts of it.
I want to share how we fill that toolbox.
This story really begins with Gov. Howard Dean. Many will remember him from that shout— “Yaaaarggh!”— that ultimately led to the end of his presidential aspirations in 2004. But Democrats, and indeed the entire progressive community, owe Gov. Dean a huge debt of gratitude. After ending his campaign, which had been built on a 50-state strategy, he served a term as Chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Under his leadership, forward-thinking state party leaders realized the need for a national voter database, but that was easier said than done. Up until this point, each state had their own vendors, contracts, and consultants who were invested in keeping the status quo. At that point, our state party used a system called “Astro,” which really wasn’t much more than an Avery label generator for mailers. The powerful and complex data infrastructure most of our state parties use today was born out of Howard Dean’s visionary leadership of the DNC.
Illustrating the benefits offered by this improved voter file is really simple: When a voter tells you that the issue they care about most is Medicare, that seems like something we should remember. Shouldn’t we follow up with that voter when Medicare is on the ballot? Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to track if a voter works the night shift, and prefers you to not call during the day when they are sleeping? Couldn’t we decrease the number of contacts we have to make if we had some knowledge not just of the party recorded in a voter’s registration, but their likelihood of actually voting for that party?
By being able to collect and use data in the voter file, we could put an end to stories like those told by one of my colleagues, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley. In the days when they used to keep basic voter information on index cards, they had to hope that nobody had misplaced or spilled coffee on the voter card they needed on any given day.
State parties previously had a patchwork of individual systems, but folding them into a program with a national standard allowed them to acquire more data, facilitating more meaningful conversations with voters. The long-term goal here is more success at the ballot box. Over the years we have been able to take that base voter file and build on it, dramatically expanding our capacity to protect the vote by tracking voter purges.
We can now offer presidential campaign level tools to candidates in school board and city council races. Local groups, like our Democratic Parish Executive Committees, can now access the data needed to organize precinct by precinct.
Nationally, Democrats have partnered with a company called NGP-VAN to deliver an amazing set of tools which, when combined with accurate state party data, helps create an environment where candidates can win. NGP-VAN’s Votebuilder system seamlessly integrates virtual phone banks, hub dialers, distributed canvassing, and even old school robo-calls with the entire campaign.
The voter contact programs used by volunteers remain constant from campaign to campaign, cutting down on training time. And allowing volunteers to enter voter contact results as they make calls and knock doors radically decreases the amount of time that campaign staff must expend on data entry. New add-ons such as Digital Ad Placement and Peer-to-Peer Texting put real scalable tools into the hands of local leaders. This provides a space to house the data that can flip school board seats, win city council races, and build a base for a future run for governor.
Whereas the Votebuilder software has improved the old methods of data storage and ensuring the information on file is no longer static. Updates occur regularly – indeed, during Early Voting, it’s updated daily – with data preservation, maintenance, and protection taking top priority.
Another national partner, TargetSmart, has helped NGP-VAN and the state parties enhance the reliability and performance of our data. With their scoring and modeling systems, we’ve been able to identify language preferences, match more phone numbers to actual voters, and generally clean up our lists. This boosts the effectiveness of our voter contacts.
All the data in the world is meaningless if you cannot analyze it and make predictions from it. This is where our national committees complement these partnerships. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has a sharp and innovative technology department that continues to improve and evolve. State parties get assists as well from the data scientists at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and, certainly this year for Louisiana, the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA).
Indeed, the DGA deserves tremendous credit for being a vital partner in our data operations, helping us build the modeling that allowed us to focus on the voters most likely to be receptive to our message. These organizations can take our base voter file, combine it with polling information, and come up with models to better determine who needs to hear from us, as well as when and how.
These tools are so powerful that we recommend when candidates build their teams, they make sure to bring on someone who is highly experienced in dealing with Votebuilder.
While the state party certainly offers basic trainings and offers a support system for candidates, it is imperative that candidates invest in a dedicated voter file administrator who can pull targets and use our scoring system, then take those universes and send them to Mini-VAN for canvasing and to Virtual Phone Banks for calling. This level of knowledge is essential to training additional team members and vital to winning campaigns. Your administrator then needs to know how to commit data and pull reports, so that you can manage your operations effectively and adjust your plans when necessary. Analyzing your voter contacts so allows you to layer your methods of communication, improving your odds of victory. (More detailed information is always available for candidates through the Louisiana Democratic Party. The cost to a campaign for the database and its included tools is based on district size.)
We’ve had a couple of success stories that exemplify how this system works.
A historic mayor-president election took place in East Baton Rouge Parish in the winter of 2016. It was an open seat, and the competition was fierce. Then-Senator Sharon Weston Broome made the decision to hire a team that invested heavily in a field program, which was tasked with communicating with high-value voters by mail, phone and door knocks. Using this system early in the Jungle Primary allowed the Broome campaign to quickly pivot in the General Election, armed with a measurable base of already-identified support. And because they also knew, in turn, where they lacked support, they were able to build a sophisticated plan in those last thirty days that was responsive to and informed by real data. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome won her race on that chilly December day by, among other things, allowing the data infrastructure (which was built and maintained by the state party) to guide her strategy.
Fast-forward to the following year and New Orleans’ open mayoral race, which would be equally competitive. Very early on, then-Councilmember LaToya Cantrell focused a lean campaign budget on community outreach and field efforts, preparing for a marathon rather than a sprint.
Her team understood that talking directly with voters would be the pathway forward, and she brought on an experienced staff who knew how to use Votebuilder for walk lists, phone banks, and texting. The conversations centered around making sure voters were invited to join the team. Cantrell and her campaign manager, Maggie Carroll, knew from their years of organizing together in the Broadmoor neighborhood that person-to-person conversations would be a winning strategy, but this was only made possible with early investments in a dedicated and well-trained team. Cantrell won with 60% of the vote, and a substantial share of her voters were people the campaign had already identified as supporters and contacted multiple times.
If field wins elections (and we’ve repeatedly seen that it does), it’s only as successful as the data and tools available to implement the plan.
In our 2019 efforts, we combined our eight years of data investment with a rockstar Data Director, Calahan Riley (who has since moved on to work for the DNC). This gave us the flexibility to work with our national partners to develop the models we would need to be successful.
Our first need was a turnout model to predict who would vote in the October and November elections. Then we needed a personalized John Bel Edwards model that would allow us to find out who the governor’s supporters would likely be. Once we had those two sets of modeling, we were able to start pulling “universes” for the campaign to use. Creating mailing lists early was important so we could get facts into voters’ hands and remind them an important election was coming. Models also allowed us to be more efficient in creating our regional and statewide phone banks, in addition to building a targeted digital program.
While the lion’s share of direct voter contact work has been rightly credited to nonpartisan groups with whom we are legally prohibited from coordinating, our team focused on selected universes to produce a layering effect. By the time we reached Early Voting, models and targeting gave us the tools we needed to pull huge lists for the texting program, so we could remind our voters when and where they needed to vote.
Of course, more than anything else, elections hinge on the candidates themselves, and fortunately, this year, our gubernatorial candidate was a widely-admired incumbent with a proven record of moving Louisiana forward and a reputation for integrity that went beyond party labels. Yet he still faced the odds any Democrat running for statewide office would encounter.
His campaign manager, Richard Carbo, a communications guru in his own right, led a team of outstanding professionals through message discipline and creative branding that highlighted the positives of our governor. He also took full advantage of this data backbone we’ve spent years building.
Being able to connect with the right voters- when and how they want to be contacted and about things they want to talk about- is vital for campaigns and party-building. Whether you’re on the phones or knocking on doors, voters have less time to talk today than they did just five years ago. Figuring out how voters want to engage and giving them that opportunity is the future of organizing. To do that, you have to have the data, the tools, and the experience to use them.
Across all races this year, our Democratic candidates were able to attempt 1,823,017 phone calls, send over 3,942,136 text messages, knock on over 416,721 doors, distribute over 2,814,566 pieces of direct mail, and serve an estimated 75 million digital ads/impressions. None of that would have been possible if the Democratic Party had not made the decision to prioritize data so many years ago.
I want to make mention of the small, but mighty Team LDP Staff who worked their butts off this year. I am very grateful to our team members including Michelle, Edward, Pat, Allyson, Kaleb,Tari, Morenike, Deion, Eric, Alice, Calahan, Lynda and all of our regionals – Alvin, Mack, Cozette, Jarvis, Linda, Cathy, Donna, Eliria, Spencena, Lila – and all of our amazing interns and fellows. I can’t thank you all enough.