Watch golf? Own guns? Trump data team has ads just for you

Why We Wrote This

It’s Red versus Blue in the race to personalize political ads online. Is digital politics becoming too manipulative?

Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP
Trump supporters protest outside a town hall meeting where U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) is speaking on Dec. 16, 2019, in the Oakland Center at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

The Republican Party has collected 3,000 data points on every voter in the country, say GOP officials. This technological treasure will allow President Donald Trump’s reelection effort to target potential supporters with mail, phone calls, and even door-knock scripts tailored to individuals’ interests.

The Democratic Party can’t match this data operation. At least, not yet – Democrats are investing millions in a new data exchange intended to recapture the magic that elected Barack Obama, twice. Welcome to Red versus Blue, data edition. Sophisticated digital operations helped President Trump win in 2016. Republicans hope to harness microtargeting power once again. Democrats are countering with Data Warehouse, a new platform to handle massive data sets that crashed their old system last time.

But will America’s digital giants play along? Google upended the 2020 digital race last month by restricting how narrowly campaigns can target voters. Facebook could follow. Candidates might have to get creative to reach dog-loving steelworkers who live in the country, say, or women with advanced degrees who read at least sixteen books a year.

“You’re going to see campaigns looking at other ad networks and other platforms and working with people who will allow this kind of targeting,” says Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson.

The pundits were wrong, Ronna McDaniel decided. Donald Trump was viable in Michigan; she had seen the data. Even in famously purple Macomb County, the Michigan Republican Party chairwoman at the time was confident in Mr. Trump’s chances.

“We knew that something was happening in Macomb County that the rest of the country was not seeing,” said Ms. McDaniel, now the Republican National Committee chairwoman, speaking at a Monitor Breakfast last month. 

History bore her out. And the same data operation that defied political expectations and helped place Mr. Trump in the White House has returned for Round 2 – organized, flush with cash, and armed with reams of voter data dating back to 2012.

“That’s the beauty of our data: allowing us to customize for the voter and then target them through digital mail, phones, and door knocks. And really have a conversation based on the things that we know they care about,” said Ms. McDaniel.

Meanwhile, the Democratic party is candidate-less, in debt, and banking on recent investments in a new data exchange to recapture the magic that fueled President Barack Obama’s victories.

“The benefits to being an incumbent extend far beyond … name recognition and having existing relationships with supporters. It means that candidates are able to build systems and collect data for years in advance of the general election,” says Daniel Kreiss, an associate political communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

However, Google upended the 2020 digital arms race last month by changing its digital advertisement policy to restrict who political campaigns could target. Both parties decried the move, saying it doesn’t address advertisements that spread lies or misinformation, which they see as crucial in the wake of a 2016 presidential election marked by digital disinformation.

If Facebook enacts similar rules, as many experts predict, it could radically alter campaign strategy and the 2020 trajectory. While it’s difficult to measure microtargeting’s impact, there’s no doubt that it was a factor in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, and Democrats see these tools as crucial to winning in 2020. Depending on Facebook’s moves, campaigns will need to get creative, says Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson.

“You’re going to see campaigns looking at other ad networks and other platforms and working with people who will allow this kind of targeting,” he says. “Elections are won with votes and we’ve got to find the voters.”

Richard Drew/AP
Political ads that were on Facebook displayed on a computer screen, Oct. 31, 2019, in New York. Twitter's ban on political advertising is ratcheting up the pressure on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg to follow suit. Zuckerberg doubled down on Facebook’s approach in a call with analysts Wednesday, Oct. 30, he reiterated Facebook’s stance that “political speech is important."

Republican juggernaut

Losing to President Obama in the 2012 election left Republicans smarting and determined to level the technological playing field. GOP officials say they have invested over $300 million into their data operation since then and have collected roughly 3,000 data points on every voter in the country, in a system jointly owned by the Trump campaign and the RNC.

“Donald Trump has a more sophisticated operation than anybody else does,” says Laura Edelson, a computer scientist at New York University who studies online political communication. “They’re being very conscious about tracking not just who goes to a Donald Trump rally, but maybe who goes to some kind of event that indicates they might be open to this message, something like a gun show.” 

Mobilization, rather than persuasion, is the campaigns’ focus a year out, say political analysts. The campaigns try to get potential voters onto what’s called the “ladder of engagement,” which is a marketing term for getting a customer (or voter) more and more interested and involved in the product (or candidate).

Getting voters onto this ladder has allowed the Trump campaign to build small-dollar donor lists and amass a giant war chest, says Michael Luciani, CEO of The Tuesday Co., whose app organizes campaign volunteers digitally.

“With money to run targeted advertisements, you can get more people to sign up as donors and collect more data, which allows you to both pay for and better target more advertisements,” he says.

This cycle and strategy helped the Trump campaign and the RNC raise a gobsmacking $334 million this year, more than five times as much as the DNC. (The four top-polling Democratic presidential candidates have raised about $220 million among them.) The GOP campaign is also spending more on Google and Facebook advertisements than the top Democratic candidates by a wide margin, but that disparity could change if a clear front-runner emerges.

Raising money doesn’t just fill a campaign’s coffers. It also stuffs spreadsheets. 

“A lot of what is useful about doing something like microtargeting on Facebook is not just that you can give someone a message that is really tailor-targeted to them,” says Ms. Edelson. “You get back really tailor-targeted information about how they responded to that message.”

Microtargeting or tailoring a political message to a person’s behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs helps campaigns figure out how to get a supporter even more engaged or move them up the ladder of engagement, says Bryan Whitaker, CIO for TargetSmart, a Democratic political analytics firm.

These tactics also allow campaigns to get creative in locating slivers of the population amenable to their message. For the GOP, that meant finding people who watched the Golf Channel or attended gun shows, and crafting an ad specifically to their tastes rather than an appeal to broad swaths of the population.

The Trump campaign doesn’t hoard this data either. They release the voter file, no strings attached, to any Republican running in any election across the country. 

“Whether you’re running for President or local dog catcher, any candidate in the country with an ‘R’ next to their name can access our data free of charge in our party-centric model that benefits all Republican candidates,” said RNC spokesman Michael Joyce in an email to the Monitor.

Democrats play catch-up

Democrats, though, place more restrictions on their data. Presidential candidates who want to access the highly-coveted voter file must pay $175,000 and help the DNC raise money through fundraisers and other events. Candidates are “investing in the DNC’s infrastructure, including overhauling our data and technology,” the DNC wrote in an email to the Monitor.

Since President Obama’s highly-touted data team in the 2012 election, the Democratic party has been playing catch-up. Part of that was unavoidable: saddled with $24 million in debt after 2012, the Democratic National Committee couldn’t afford to keep the team intact. (The DNC is $7 million in debt.)

One of the stars of that campaign was Vertica, which housed all the voter data and was considered quite cutting-edge. As the years passed, however, the technology grew bloated and unwieldy – so much so that after the 2016 election Hillary Clinton famously blasted the party’s data operation and said she “inherited nothing” when she became the presidential candidate.

“Think about it this way: you’ve got a brand-new Mac laptop and it moves real fast, it’s real nimble,” says Mr. Whitaker. “And six years later you’re like, oh my God, why is this thing just like so slow?”

Replacing this outdated system became the party’s top priority under new DNC Chair Tom Perez. The party unveiled Vertica’s replacement earlier this year: Data Warehouse, a Google- and cloud-based platform that can handle massive data sets and analyses that so often crashed Vertica.

The second change was the establishment of the Democratic Data Exchange, which allows the party to exchange data with outside political groups. Data Trust, the GOP equivalent, has been around since 2011 and has fueled their recent success. Mr. Whitaker says with the creation of the exchange, the Democrats have “gotten all of our pieces in place” to challenge Republicans in 2020. That said, the party still lacks a presidential candidate. Until one of the Democratic hopefuls wins, the DNC won’t have a partner with which to merge money streams, and develop a data strategy to match the unified Republican front. 

“This is, again, one of those advantages of incumbency,” says Mr. Kreiss. “It would be impossible and unreasonable for us to expect Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders to be doing a ‘vote Democrat’ pitch right now or raising money or collecting email addresses for the party.”

“In general, Republican presidents have invested more in party building and that extends to things like data operations.”

Ad policy change

Google’s policy change means political campaigns will only be able to target people based on their age, gender, or location. Previously, it was an open field. A person’s political leanings or search history was fair game, as was tracking a user once they visit the campaign’s website.

Elections are about vying for eyeballs and finding votes, and limiting campaigns’ tools limits their ability to reach potential supporters, says Mr. Wilson, the Republican strategist.

“It’ll be more difficult for campaigns to build their email lists and raise money from grassroots donors because you’re limiting your ability on how to reach them,” he says.

These changes will help incumbents and hamstring campaigns without much pre-existing infrastructure, says Mr. Luciani.

“It makes it harder and more expensive to build your list of potential supporters,” he says. “It means that you also have to tailor your message to a broader audience. You can’t just microtarget people you know will support you. You’re going to be targeting a wider swath of the population.”

Both parties echo the utility of microtargeting, but it’s trickier to figure out what these effects have on the people being targeted. Mr. Kreiss says this engagement cycle and digital ads overall have created an ethos of almost perpetual mobilization.

“If you look at the Trump ads, they’re always asking their supporters to do things,” he says. “They’re asking their supporters to click a link, to give money, to sign up, to volunteer, to give over their email address. They’re being asked to engage and do more on a regular basis much more often than what would have been the case 20, 30 years ago.” 

That perpetual mobilization would not be possible without Silicon Valley’s social media giants, all of whom are reckoning with their role as communities fueled by and facilitators of political speech. Twitter and now Google have announced targeting restrictions, and Facebook seems likely to follow suit in enacting rules that could have an outsized impact upon future elections.

“What content do people consider political?” says Ms. Edelson. “It’s not entirely clear if a politician runs an ad that has no overt political message and says something like ‘Happy Holidays’ – is that a political message? Does it influence people’s perceptions of a politician? Those are things that we’re actively trying to get answers to.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.