Donald Trump derided the use of data and technology tools for his presidential campaign — but those techniques might well have propelled him to victory.
Trump’s stealth digital campaign, thrown together hastily in the final months of the campaign, allowed the Republican billionaire to fine-tune his message and reach voters in crucial Rust Belt states that gave him an Electoral College majority.
During the primaries, Trump dismissed as “overrated” the kinds of data analytics and “micro-targeting” successfully used by President Barack Obama.
But after winning the nomination, he quietly developed a digital strategy led by a political neophyte, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a data company whose parent firm worked on the Brexit campaign.
In the final stages of the race, Trump relied on insights generated by Cambridge Analytica, the US unit of British behavioral marketing firm SCL, that allowed his campaign to reach voters in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that delivered his majority over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“We built an algorithm that generated top cities to reach the highest concentration of persuadable voters,” said Matt Oczkowski, head of the data science team for the Trump campaign at Cambridge Analytica.
“That intelligence was being updated and shared daily. This campaign had to be far more surgical because Hillary Clinton outspent this campaign by double.”
The digital efforts involved “thousands of variations” of messages that were targeted based on voter profiles to platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat or Pandora radio, Oczkowski said.
Cambridge Analytica said its 4,000 different online ads for Trump were viewed 1.5 billion times by millions of Americans.
The data science team could glean information about users to deliver pitches “based on the issues they care about,” Oczkowski said.
“The main reason we were hired was to quantify the Trump effect,” and to quantify “how unique this candidate was.”
Tom Bonier, CEO of the consultancy TargetSmart that worked with Democratic candidates, agreed that understanding turnout was a key factor in 2016.
“If there is an Achilles heel in analytics, it is predicting turnout,” Bonier said.
“The models do a great deal in predicting how people are going to vote, but have a hard time predicting who is going to vote.”
Trump’s digital strategist tapped by Kushner was Brad Parscale, head of a Texas-based marketing firm who was new to politics.
Parscale’s lack of experience may have played to his advantage, said Chris Wilson, CEO of WPA Research, who led digital strategy for Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential bid.
“There’s a lot of value in going into a campaign knowing what you don’t know,” Wilson said.