Sasha Issenberg’s interesting 2012 book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns details how the then-emerging science of “data analytics” was technologically transforming the way partisan political campaigns were conducted.
In Fall 2000, as Issenberg reports in the book, sophisticatedly tech-savvy political scientists Don Green and Alan Gerber “were invited to speak to the Carnegie Corporation, one of many civic-minded institutions that had added dwindling voter turnout to their list of concerns over the course of the 1990s.”
Both Green and Gerber were Yale professors at the time. Green is now at Columbia; Gerber remains at Yale. Carnegie was and is a tax-exempt, nonprofit private foundation. As such, it can make grants to eligible nonprofit public charities, in furtherance of its exempt, charitable purpose.
“Because the tax code allowed nonprofit organizations to run registration and turnout drives as long as they did not push a particular candidate,” Issenberg continues in The Victory Lab, “organizing ‘historically disenfranchised’ communities (as Carnegie described them) became a backdoor approach to ginning up Democratic votes outside the campaign finance laws that applied to candidates, parties, and political action committees.”
[More recently, the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, supported by Mark Zuckerberg, uses the same terminology about the “historically disenfranchised” in its contract with the City of Philadelphia for “its work in connection with the safe administration of elections in 2020.”]
Actually, philanthropically supported voter-registration and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) projects, according to standard, longstanding Internal Revenue Service instruction, must be “conducted in a neutral, non-partisan manner, … without reference to any candidate or political party.” They can’t be a nonprofit, “backdoor approach to ginning up Democratic votes,” as Issenberg describes them.
“Major liberal donors got into the GOTV game: Project Vote organized urban areas, Rock the Vote targeted the young, the NAACP National Voter Fund focused on African-Americans,” he goes on.
“You were seeing much more energy devoted to turnout,” says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who hosted an event with Gerber and Green in a Capitol Hill committee room at the time. “They were putting resources into it, and didn’t have a very good way of measuring the effectiveness of it.”
When Gerber and Green stepped into a conference room at Carnegie, they unwittingly stumbled into an epic battle for resources with lefty interest groups.