By Darren Sands
A prominent liberal donor is trying to connect the kinds of donors who write big checks with data about what races are most promising for Democrats.
The “Take Back Congress Hub,” a subscription-based online tool to identify House races most likely to flip in 2018, was commissioned and funded by power couple Susan Sandler and Steve Phillips, who are Democratic donors and activists. Phillips is expected to announce the project Wednesday at a talk in Washington, DC, with Sen. Cory Booker.
Phillips told BuzzFeed News that amid new liberal energy and what is already a dramatic increase in Democratic fundraising, a need arose for donors to gain clarity about how to maximize the resources in the effort to take back the House from the Republican Party, free from emotion. Many donors are new to politics and risk being swayed by a powerful or compelling narrative, without relying enough on empirical data to make decisions, he said.
The project is the latest in a variety of projects and programs focused on capturing enthusiasm and flipping the House, from the traditional party establishment group like the DCCC (which has a “red-to-blue” program) to newer grassroots-oriented groups like Swing Left, which has helped send general election money to a series of targeted swing districts.
Why is this one different? People working on the tool argue that, first, the methodology is "more elaborate"; second, the tool emphasizes existing activist groups in the district; and, lastly, this has a different audience: major donors rather than people looking to contribute, for instance, $25.
Using an algorithm integrating 22 statistical variables (e.g., demographics, individual vote history, date of voter registration, partisan index scores, and how individual voters changed their vote from 2012 to 2016). So far the project has highlighted 38 races in 15 states. In one example seen by BuzzFeed News, the algorithm identified Florida's 26th District as one of the most flippable in the country. It notes while Rep. Carlos Curbelo is the incumbent, several factors point to his vulnerability in November: Curbelo is Cuban, but Cuban voters have been trending less Republican the last four cycles, and he’s been one of the most endangered members for years. All of the major prediction think tanks are rating the race as a toss-up. The voting model predicted that the Democrat will beat Curbelo and that unlikely voters will increase the vote total.
The tool also gives donors the ability to contribute directly to grassroots organizations that are working to turn out voters in advance of the primary.
Phillips spoke of donors scrambling to figure out what they can do and on what areas they should focus their attention leading up to the midterms — and not having a lot of guidance in that vein. “There’s a lot of unclarity on that question,” said Phillips, who has fashioned a profile as an under-the-radar herald of the progressive movement. “It’s really addressing that question that a lot of donors had about where to focus and trying to put some empirical data behind that answer.”
This is also part of Phillips’s larger mission to expand fairness in the party and push higher powers to invest more in turning out base voters. Phillips said his thoughts on data go back to dramatic shifts in the party going back to Jesse Jackson’s emergence in Democratic politics and how demographic changes more than doubled his vote total from 1984 to 1988. The Obama phenomenon was simply an extension of that dynamic so few people seem to understand, Phillips said.
The project is another collaboration with Julie Martínez Ortega, who in 2014 conducted through PowerPAC+ the first-ever audit of the Democratic Party’s consultant spending. The results were embarrassing: The study found that of the $500 million the party spent on the 2008 and 2012 elections, just 2% went to minority-owned firms.
“The real thrust of it is to try to move away from the sentiment of the donors and to have a very sober analysis so that people can have objective measures on which to make their decisions,” Martínez Ortega told BuzzFeed News.
But it also reflects an effort for more efficiency among the donor class. “The most frustrating part is that people have not been empirically based,” despite advances in technology, said Phillips. “Most Democratic politics is still not driven by numbers or data. That’s what we’re really trying to bring to this.”