The Democratic Party wants your cellphone digits. And it’s paying a hefty sum in the hopes you’ll text or call back.
The Democratic National Committee is dropping “six figures” to acquire “tens of millions” of cellphone numbers through a variety of vendors, the group exclusively told The Daily Beast. It’s plan is to boost Democratic voter outreach, fundraising, and data collection ahead of a bruising 2020 presidential campaign and the host of down-ballot races that will reshape American politics next year.
Republicans believe they’ve built an “unstoppable machine” to re-elect President Donald Trump, as his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, put it on Tuesday. But Democrats say their new investment will position the party well against the president.
“Making sure campaigns and state parties have access to reliable cellphone numbers and data helps them reach more voters, more efficiently, especially those who are younger or tend to move around a lot,” said Nellwyn Thomas, the DNC’s Chief Technology Officer. “The more efficient we can be in our outreach, the more likely we are to win, and this technology will help more volunteers and campaigns have better conversations with voters about why it's so important to elect Democrats in 2020."
The cellphone buy marks the first time that the DNC has purchased a bulk file of nationwide phone numbers during a presidential election cycle. Unaffiliated Democrats said that the news of the purchase was welcomed as the party tries to make up a tech deficit it faces against a well-funded Trump re-election effort.
In 2016, the DNC was focused on acquiring numbers strictly in battleground states. This time around, it says it’s looking to build a list of every American cellphone number that they can definitively match to a voter—and that they don’t already have on file.
The purchase signals a renewed effort to adapt to an era in which voters—and Democratic constituencies in particular—are increasingly foregoing landlines in favor of cellphones. That trend has, of course, been going on for a while. But in recent years, political candidates and parties have dramatically expanded the use of cellphones to contact voters and organize politically, including through peer-to-peer texting—voter outreach campaigns that use centralized databases of phone numbers to send personalized appeals to millions of potential voters, donors, and volunteers. Firms that facilitate peer-to-peer texting note that the method is significantly cheaper than mail and that the response rate can be twice that of phone calls.
Republicans, for their part, portrayed the DNC’s new bulk phone number purchase as a desperate attempt to play catch-up.
"We have been spending well over seven figures on this every year since 2012, so spending six figures this late means Democrats are way behind,” said RNC communications director Michael Ahrens when asked about the DNC’s move. “Hillary Clinton said she inherited ‘nothing’ from the DNC,” Ahrens added, “and it sounds like their 2020 nominee won’t be faring much better.”
But the DNC insists that its purchase can’t be measured by volume alone. The numbers it’s acquiring, the committee says, are not just voluminous, but culled to produce high quality data. That means focusing only on phone numbers that the committee can confidently match with voters who are likely to respond, and ensuring that candidates and state parties aren’t working with lists of duplicative phone numbers.
The committee, which is purchasing the numbers through a number of unidentified vendors, also plans to continuously update its list of cellphones throughout the cycle, and expects the total number of voters available for contact to grow before election day. They’re also constructing a proprietary data science model dubbed “Sonar” to help campaigns prioritize who to call or text.
A DNC aide said the information was “being rolled out on the file now, so it will be available to campaigns almost immediately” to Democratic candidates with access to the DNC’s larger voter file and its suite of data and technology offerings. That access will be given free of charge to state parties and down-ballot candidates. The presidential campaigns currently are paying for the DNC’s voter file, and there will be no additional cost for the cellphone information.
The DNC estimates that the new purchase and the launch of Sonar will end up making cellphone outreach by campaigns roughly 35 percent more efficient. And the majority of it is expected to be through actual phone calls.
But there could be some unforeseen hurdles elsewhere. Telephone carriers have express reservations about peer-to-peer texting in particular as users have complained about being spammed against their will. Within political circles there is fear that the carriers may simply outlaw the practice entirely. A DNC official told The Daily Beast that they were monitoring the situation but did not “have any reason to think there have been significant developments” or that “a change is imminent.”
For the time being, the DNC hopes to integrate its new list of phone numbers into existing data and voter contact tools such as its Facebook advertising efforts. The phone numbers, it hopes, will allow the party to engage voters through multiple channels in a complementary way that gives the party and its candidates a fuller, more detailed well of voters from which to draw support, financial or otherwise.
Whether that will be enough to counter the voter contact tools that the Trump campaign and the RNC have assembled over the past three years remains to be seen. Parscale himself took to Twitter on Tuesday to mock Democrats’ attempts at cellphone outreach, sharing a photo of a text he received from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
“Almost feel bad for the @DNC and @SenSanders for having such bad data,” Parscale jibed. “If you think my phone number is a possible Bernie supporter you are wasting big bucks.”