Catalist, LLC is a data firm that services both left-of-center nonprofits and Democratic candidates and officeholders. This Washington, D.C.-based for-profit vendor outfit came together in 2006 in response to the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004. Democratic operatives such as Harold Ickes, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, concluded that Republicans had gained the upper hand through the use of voter contact technology. Catalist was set up to counter any voter database edge the Republicans may have gained during the Bush years.
The firm is closely aligned with the liberal donor clearinghouse Democracy Alliance. In 2014, the Alliance recommended Catalist as one of five organizations that “support progressive candidates” with a baseline Alliance funding target of between $500,000 and a stretch target of $750,000.
Catalist has faced criticism for straddling the line between activities permitted and prohibited under Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules. An FEC complaint alleging Catalist violated rules governing collusion between organizations and below-market sales of political services was filed in 2015, though no action was taken.
Also see Harold Ickes (Person)
Catalist was formed in 2006 by political consultants Laura Quinn and Harold Ickes, both Clinton family operatives. The new data vendor would allow liberal donors, reportedly including George Soros, to contribute to left-of-center voter turnout, modeling, and activation efforts without violating Federal Election Commission limits accompanying contributions to the Democratic National Committee.
The data compiled by Catalist was then sold to labor unions and progressive organizations such as Rock the Vote, EMILY’s List, and the Sierra Club. The contracts concerning data usage reportedly required customers to contribute any voter data they possessed in areas such as issue interests into the Catalist database for future use by the wider movement.
The firm says that it “compiles, enhances, stores, and dynamically updates data on over 240 million unique voting-age individuals across all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” in order to “build membership, target persuasive messaging, engage activists, drive and issue agenda and mobilize voters.” Catalist databases draw from public records, pollsters, campaign information, nonprofit groups, unions, political parties, commercial information, and wide variety of other sources. Catalist incorporates all of this information into databases so that left-of-center candidates, and their campaign operatives, can make efficient use of a technique known as “microtargeting” or “narrowcasting.”
”Microtargeting” is the identification of a wide range of specific voter characteristics and viewpoints which, when analyzed, can offer insight into which political issues pique the interest of potential voters within various demographic groups. The next step then is to determine which candidate those voters would most likely support and their likelihood of voting. This information can be used by liberal organizations for get-out-the-vote efforts. Catalist claims that it carries data on more than 180 million registered voters, including their party registration, vote history, as well as other variables from official voter rolls, such as date of birth, registration date, race, and political geography. In addition, it also carries information on more than 85 million unregistered adults.
The purpose of this information can be described using the promotional language from a Democracy Alliance panel including Catalist’s CEO. The Daily Beast reported that the panel pitch read, “Although the autopsy of the 2016 election is still being written, there are historical voting trends that provide insight into the results and forecasts looking ahead for how we [liberals] can begin to build back power state by state.”
Catalist has been rivaled by data operations associated with the Democratic National Committee; however, many progressives are said to prefer Catalist since it lies outside the formal party framework.
Federal Election Law Collusion
In 2015, the conservative nonprofit Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Catalist. The complaint alleged that the company, the Democratic National Committee, and more than 300 Democratic campaigns had broken federal election law by providing Democratic campaigns with excessive and prohibited contributions through undisclosed in-kind contributions. The FEC took no action on the complaint.
Catalist was started with $1 million in seed money from George Soros. Catalist also received $1,025,000 in funding from the Tides Foundation in 2006, $1,008,880 in 2007, $801,000 in 2008, and $811,823 in 2010. The Sierra Club disclosed it paid Catalist $200,000 in 2008 for serving as a “data provider.”
The Center for Responsive Politics compiles FEC-reportable expenditures to Catalist. For the 2016 cycle, progressive candidates and organizations reported $635,917 in expenditures to the organization, with notable customers including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, NextGen Climate Action, Planned Parenthood Votes, the Hillary Clinton-aligned Super PAC Ready PAC, America Votes Action Fund, and the Democratic Party of Texas.