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In Advance of Midterms, Top GOP Voter Data Firm Makes a Move

The Data Trust just hired a new president and CEO to try to win the voter data game. Are the Democrats paying attention?

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The major hub for Republican voter data has undergone a shake-up at the highest level, according to multiple Republican sources.

The Data Trust, the GOP’s clearinghouse for voter data, has brought in a new president and CEO to lead the data exchange for Republican organizations and campaigns. Jon Black, a longtime Republican operative, has done stints at the Republican National Committee, the digital team for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and the Republican state parties in Michigan and Virginia, among others. Black is currently a senior adviser at the RNC.

Henry Barbour, the chairman of the board of the Data Trust, announced Black’s ascension in a Monday afternoon email obtained by The New Republic.

“On behalf of the Data Trust Board of Directors, I am pleased to share with you that we have hired Jon Black to serve as our next president and CEO,” Barbour wrote in the email. “Jon comes with strong credentials and experience to help Data Trust successfully carry out our mission to provide the absolute best political data in the country.”

The news is, yes, as insidery as it gets in Washington political circles. But it’s also the latest development in the ongoing escalation war between Republicans and Democrats vying to have the edge on voter data. And it’s a war Democrats have been the underdogs in lately.

Karl Rove, in a 2019 Wall Street Journal column briefly summarizing the voter data wars between the two parties, started his piece by writing: “An arms race is under way that will deeply affect America’s future.” He relayed that, circa 2012, Democrats “dominated the data battlefield, using more-advanced tools to pinpoint 15 million swing voters vital to President Obama’s re-election.”

The emphasis Rove put on the “data battlefield” is warranted. Voter data files allow campaigns to predict how their supporters and voters in general will turn out and which voting blocs need more attention. A good voter file like the one the Data Trust aims to nurture is essentially a campaign’s GPS or Google Maps in any serious congressional, statewide, or presidential campaign. In an era when a presidential candidate can win a state and its electoral votes by a margin of only tens of thousands, quality voter files can be the deciding tool between victory and defeat. Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump was only by 78,000 votes across three states. Some critics have blamed her data analytics and voting models.

In recent years, Republicans have worked to catch up, and at moments have had the edge on the voter data front while Democrats, through ActBlue, have retained superiority in small dollar donations. In recent years, Republicans started WinRed as their alternative to ActBlue. ActBlue is still the dominant fundraising platform of the two these days.

There’s a sort of ping-pong cycle to these developments. In 2020, after years of resisting the GOP’s approach to data, then–Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez brought in Howard Dean to start Democrats’ own version of the Data Trust. Up to that time, Democrats had largely been complaining that Republicans were breaking laws barring campaigns from working in coordination with outside groups like the Data Trust. Perez’s hiring of Dean constituted an admission that such complaints were a fool’s errand. Democrats also felt they had begun to lag behind Republicans in this arena.

Under Dean, Democrats have started the Democratic Data Exchange, a private company started to help campaigns, liberal groups, and Democratic committees with data and voter files. Dean told The Washington Post that the DDE’s work helped power Governor Andy Beshear’s narrow victory in Kentucky in 2018. “Data is incredibly valuable,” Dean told the paper.

The Data Trust has already experienced top-level leadership turnover this year. In May, Republican operative Chris Carr, an alumnus of the RNC and Donald Trump’s campaign, was brought in to serve as a senior adviser.

By June, Carr was promoted to interim CEO and replaced Matt Lakin. According to Politico, that shake-up came “amid concerns from top Republicans about the party’s data infrastructure following the 2020 election.”  

At the time of Carr’s succession, Republicans felt the Data Trust was starting to lose its lead on updating the voter file and innovating. The addition of Black shows that party officials are continuing to keep a close eye on the voter and data provider.

“We had a great search process with a number of outstanding candidates, and the board unanimously voted to hire Jon Black. Jon has a great blend of political and data experience, skills and knowledge that make him a great fit,” Barbour said in a statement to TNR. “Data Trust has the best political data in the country and is envied by Democrats; Jon and the Data Trust staff are going to put more separation between our data and the Democrats’.”  

The Data Trust’s moves and the Democratic Data Exchange’s creation each illustrate both parties’ sense that innovation and hypervigilance over voter engagement and information will be the deciding factor in the next election cycle. Republicans say they have the wind at their back in 2022 campaigns, and Democrats say they shouldn’t be counted out. A good hub for voter data could decide who’s right.