CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Democratic National Committee and party leaders in early-voting states are at loggerheads over one of the most valuable assets in politics: data.
Party chiefs, who huddled in South Carolina last week, are trying to hammer out a deal to share precious data on voters ahead of the 2022 midterms — information that will be crucial for turning out and targeting the right people ahead of a potentially bruising election. But the agreement, which has been the subject of negotiations for months, has stalled over one final, major sticking point: reducing the six-figure price tags that state parties charge presidential candidates for their voters lists during the primary season.
According to draft proposals shared with POLITICO, the DNC wants to prohibit state parties from charging presidential candidates more than $5,000 for their base voter files, an expensive hurdle for nascent presidential campaigns about which some have grumbled in the past. But the early states, which shoulder the cost of organizing lengthy caucus and primary campaigns, argue that eliminating their ability to set prices for their own voter file would be budget-breaking, said Jay Parmley, the executive director of the state Democratic Party in South Carolina, which hosts the nation’s first-in-the-South presidential primary.
“It’s really, ‘How do we not bankrupt our four early states for their added responsibility?’” said Parmley, who added that negotiations were continuing with party leaders but that “we’re not there yet.”
South Carolina’s state party charged now-President Joe Biden $120,000 for access to its voter file in 2020, according to the Federal Election Commission filings, a fee that includes security, event management and other costs.
In Nevada, another early-nominating state, Judith Whitmer, the state party chair, described the $5,000 limitation as “a lot of lost revenue” and accused DNC leaders of orchestrating “a real power grab.”
The spat is the latest point of friction between the DNC, which is seeking to reestablish itself as a dominant force in national politics, and the state parties, which have felt neglected over much of the past decade — and some of which, like Nevada, have moved ideologically further to the left than Biden and D.C. Democrats.
A DNC aide said party leaders proposed the $5,000 cap for access to what they called a “voter file lite plan” for a few reasons: They want more presidential campaigns — not just the best-funded ones — to have access to voter data. The staffer said they also don’t want candidates to be forced to purchase the file from a third-party vendor. At the same time, the DNC aide said, they understand hosting early caucuses and primaries is a costly affair, so early state parties can charge whatever they’d like for their “proprietary” data, which is more detailed.
“The Iowa caucus list, the New Hampshire data for who did what yard sign — charge whatever you want. That’s what’s valuable anyway,” said the DNC official. The aide characterized the negotiations between the national party and early state parties as not “that far apart” and predicted they would sign on “soon.”
But some Democrats are skeptical that they will sign immediately, and described a lobbying effort was underway in Charleston to change that. An early-state official said DNC deputy executive director Roger Lau met with early state parties in South Carolina.
(A DNC aide said “any discussions in South Carolina were not official negotiations, but rather broader conversations with a variety of states about the path forward in their states and how the DNC could be helpful to them in the upcoming months.”)
Other state parties are leaning on the early states, too. Hendrell Remus, the Tennessee state chair, said, “I think you have to trust the process,” calling on states that haven’t signed to “step up.” He said the DNC could — and should — find other ways to ensure that early-nominating states are financially supported during the presidential primary.
According to several state party sources, the DNC has a powerful leverage point in the talks: It is withholding some grant funds for states until the deal is signed. The DNC did not respond to a question about that claim.
Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said talks are ongoing and that early states had submitted a counter proposal to the DNC for review. According to a copy of the language obtained by POLITICO, the early nominating states want to put restrictions on the data that presidential campaigns can acquire from other places if they purchase their base voter file.
An early-state official said the counter-proposal “closes any possibility of the DNC or any other source to back-door provide proprietary information to candidates directly.”
Last week, officials in later-voting states expressed optimism that those who had not OK’d it yet could finish it in the near future. Twenty-seven state parties have signed onto the data-sharing agreement, and 13 more are expected to sign soon, according to a DNC aide.
In a statement, DNC Chair Jaime Harrison suggested it was a done deal: “This agreement was developed to work for all the states over many cycles, and achieves our goal of keeping data in the system for the benefit of all candidates. We’re excited to start 2022 with this wrapped up, and are eager to continue work with our state party partners on their electoral priorities and to support candidates up and down the ballot.”
Data-sharing is a frequent source of strain among top Democratic officials. Back in 2018, a plan to centralize data into a third-party entity in an effort to compete with the Republican model, Data Trust, backfired initially, after state parties pushed back. The battle eventually led to the formation of the Democratic Data Exchange, an independent entity that allows campaigns, third-party groups and state parties to all share anonymized data legally, in 2019.
Earlier this year, DNC leaders and state party officials disagreed over another provision in the data-sharing deal, which would allow candidates to obtain access to the base voter file from the national party if they have a dispute with a state party. State party officials said the language was aimed at kneecapping Nevada’s state Democratic Party after it had been taken over by insurgent socialists.
A DNC aide said that the debate over that part of the agreement had been put to bed and that the negotiation over voter file pricing was the final issue yet to be nailed down. A handful of early-state Democrats disagreed, saying they still took issue with that change and others.
“Quality data — and having access to it — determines who wins and who loses, so it’s an incredibly valuable asset,” said Tom McMahon, who served as the DNC’s chief executive under then-chair Howard Dean. “Inevitably, there’s always interest in who controls it and the longstanding challenge remains that there’s no consensus on what the correct approach should be, whether it should be nationalized or held in the states.”
But as early states fight to maintain their revenue stream, several former 2020 Democratic presidential staffers and advisers raised concerns about the current system, often citing that the early states’ hefty price tag for their voter file prevented some from being able to afford it.
“Look, it would’ve been nice to get a bulk deal because we went to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. But we didn’t have a voter file to build a crowd, so it can be a barrier of entry,” said Brad Komar, who led then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s presidential primary bid. “But, obviously, it would take a tool away from state parties … so I understand why early states, who use this as a way to fundraise for everything they do, why they’d resist it.”
The state party voter file — which includes everything from basic informational data on individual voters to their vote history and caucus participation — is an indispensable resource for presidential campaigns.
It’s also a money-making bonanza for state parties: The Iowa Democratic Party charged presidential campaigns about $120,000 each to use their file, while the New Hampshire Democratic Party had a price tag of about $100,000, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spent $117,000 on the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s file. Biden purchased the South Carolina Democratic Party’s voter file for $120,000, while Pete Buttigieg’s campaign spent $100,000 on it.
“Every early state milks the presidential candidates, and the voter file is the first step in the milking process,” said Pete Giangreco, a longtime Democratic strategist who’s worked on nine presidential campaigns. “They could be a little less predatory about it.”
Another former Democratic presidential campaign operative, granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal party policies, called the early states’ prices a “racket.”
“Every campaign, regardless of size or scale, should have access to the Democratic Party data,” the source continued. “There’s a cost to maintaining data, but what Iowa and New Hampshire charge is not equivalent to the cost of maintaining that data.”