Trump is winning the online war

Open source

For all his negative poll numbers and impeachment-related liabilities, President Trump has a decisive advantage on one key election battleground: the digital campaign.

Under the management of Brad Parscale, the Trump re-election machine has devoted millions more than any individual Democrat to increasingly sophisticated microtargeting techniques.

The accompanying chart, compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project, describes the partisan gulf in political spending, through September 19, on Facebook and Google by leading presidential candidates: Trump’s $15.9 million is more than the $15.5 million spent by the top three Democratic candidates combined.

But these figures substantially understate how far Democrats are behind.

Trump’s operatives have been working since 2016 to develop and test techniques to identify voters, determine message effectiveness and develop tools of electronic communication.

Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wrote me that in the arena of digital politics, Trump is the beneficiary of a major advantage:

The fact that Trump is an incumbent, without a significant primary challenger, means that his team and the Republican National Committee have had three years to build tools, collect data, test models and messaging, and mobilize supporters.

How does this advantage actually work?

Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, is deeply worried that Democrats have fallen behind. In an email, he described some of the technological advances that have allowed Trump and the Republican Party to leave Democrats in the dust: “The key is MAIDs — Mobile Advertising IDs. All of our phones have a unique MAID.”

FoxBusiness.com explains the utility of such IDs:

Political campaigns are getting in on the action by working with third-party companies to track the “unique identifier” of voters’ phones, matching that ID with the “trove of data usually connected to that same ID.”

From there, Fox reports,

the campaign will recognize the phone, knowing where it has been and the interest of its user, creating a portrait of the user. With this broad body of information, campaigns can effectively target potential voters with advertising, calls and send campaign representatives right to your house.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties maintain and regularly update massive voter and non-voter lists that include details of credit card usage — magazine subscriptions, church and club dues, hunting and fishing licenses — that are all useful in predicting which candidates voters are more likely to choose.

Now, Podhorzer says, “imagine a file with that, and every piece of information taken from your smartphone.” This, he argues, “is the world we’re moving to.” In this new terrain, “the G.O.P. is running pretty far ahead of the Democrats innovating online, mostly because of their financial advantage.”

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The Trump campaign’s interest in gaining access to smartphones was unmistakably signaled in an arcane July 1, 2019 reference to “beacon” and “proximity systems” in the “Privacy Policy” on the Donald J. Trump for President website:

“If you agree to allow access to your location, you agree that we and our service providers may collect such location-based information from your Device,” it said, and

We may also collect other information based on your location and your Device’s proximity to “beacons” and other similar proximity systems, including, for example, the strength of the signal between the beacon and your Device and the duration that your Device is near the beacon.

Matt Binder, a tech and politics reporter, wrote on Mashable about the significance of the new language:

Using beacons, campaigns can micro-target voters. For example, they can encourage voters to go to the polls based on their location. Campaigns can also use this technology to collect additional data by messaging users with questionnaires, email sign-up forms, and surveys.

What this means is that the Trump campaign can collect mobile advertising IDs for smartphones in relatively small geographic areas — “information based on your location and your Device’s proximity to “beacons” — at a Trump rally, for example, or a National Rifle Association convention or a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I sent an email to Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director, asking what the campaign intends to do with the identifying information it acquires. His emailed reply:

“We decline to comment.”

While Democrats are clearly worried about the jump the Trump campaign has on them in digital tech, Republicans are ecstatic.

Trump’s re-election quest “will be the most sophisticated data-driven campaign we’ve ever seen,” Reid Vineis, vice president for digital operations at Majority Strategies, a Republican consulting firm, told me.

The partisan battle over microtargeting — a marketing strategy “that uses consumer data and demographics to identify the interests of specific individuals or very small groups of like-minded individuals and influence their thoughts or actions” — has been fought in earnest over the past 15 years.

Initially, it was the 2004 re-election campaign of George W. Bush, guided by Karl Rove, that pioneered advances in this technology in a race to mobilize as many Republican-leaning voters as possible on Election Day, in a highly polarized electorate with few swing or persuadable voters.

In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama and the Democrats caught up to and then surpassed the Republican Party in using digital technologies to reach out to donors and voters and, most important, to get voters to the polls.

The high-tech pendulum swang back in favor of the Republican Party in the 2016 election, when Parscale ran digital operations for Trump.

“Both campaigns spent heavily on Facebook between June and November of 2016,” according to an internal Facebook postelection white paper obtained by Bloomberg,

But, the author of the paper wrote, “Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex than Clinton’s and better leveraged Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes.”

Bloomberg reported that “Clinton spent $28 million from June to November 2016, while testing 66,000 different ads,” while “Trump spent $44 million in that period and tested 5.9 million versions of ads.”

In terms of identifying supporters and donors, “Trump’s campaign was more focused,” while the Clinton campaign concentrated on the more amorphous goal of enhancing Clinton’s appeal as a candidate, Bloomberg reported: “84 percent of Trump’s budget asked people on Facebook to take an action, like donating, compared with 56 percent of Clinton’s.”

Kreiss, the U.N.C. professor, and Shannon McGregor, a professor of communications at the University of Utah, described the importance of taking full advantage of the services offered by Google and Facebook in their June 2019 paper “The ‘Arbiters of What Our Voters See’: Facebook and Google’s Struggle with Policy, Process, and Enforcement around Political Advertising.”

Google, they wrote,

supports targeting based on location, age, gender, and parental status (demographic categories), affinity (interests or characteristics), consumer behavior or search, specific sites, similar (or look-alike) audiences, and remarketing to users who have already interacted with an ad, in addition to content targeting.

Facebook, in turn,

offers many more categories into which users can be sorted and targeted, including: location (state, ZIP code, or congressional district), demographics, age, gender, languages spoken, relationship status, education level, work status and place of employment, income, ‘ethnic affinity,’ generation, life events, politics, Facebook connections, plus a wide array of other interests and tracked behaviors online. In addition, at the time of this writing Facebook permitted targeting on the basis of likelihood to engage with political content and based on ideology (a scale from very conservative to very liberal).

Parscale has been relatively open in describing what the Trump campaign did in 2016 and how it plans to use technology in the current election cycle.

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In an August 2018 interview broadcast on PBS Frontline, Parscale said that the task in 2016 was relatively simple: convey what he called the “shock and awe” of Trump’s norm-violating public comments, wherever possible: “The start of that was, break down what Trump’s messages were, which he had made very public between tweets, videos, interviews and speaking with him in person, and break that down into: What are our main shells of content or our strongest points to help him win? Match that with the right people. Who are the” Trump campaign staffers “that are going to best write for these audiences? Then match that with the right places they live so that their votes matter the most.

While seemingly simple, the process requires constant oversight and revision to determine what works and what does not:

If they react to it, donate, say they’re going to vote, share it, then you know you’ve created positive content. If they don’t do that, then you go back and you re-tweak the content to show it in the way that allows them to react to it the way you want.

Once you have collected consumer and voting data on a segment of a key target constituency, “let’s say 300,000 people,” Parscale continued, Facebook allows you to “click a button, and it will find people who look like those 300,000 people,” effectively empowering the campaign to identify nationwide the voters and nonvoters who fit in that niche.

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In a separate July 2018 interview on “60 Minutes,” Parscale described running through tens of thousands of Facebook ad variations daily to fine tune messages:

Changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button. Some people like the word ‘donate’ over ‘contribute,’ ” or “here we have an American flag, here we have a face of Hillary. Different colors, the blues, different messages above.

With a touch of irony, Parscale told “60 Minutes":

These social platforms were all invented by very liberal people on the West and East Coast, and we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don’t think they ever thought that would happen. I would say the number one thing that people come up to me is, like, I just never thought Republicans would be the ones to figure out how to use all this.

One of the reasons digital technology requires repeated testing and modification is that the surge of new companies in the field has resulted in a proliferation of exaggerated or false claims by vendors.

Keegan Goudiss, managing partner at Revolution Messaging, a Democratic digital consulting firm, wrote me that in one new area, the acquisition of smartphone location data, many vendors “are either unknowingly or knowingly pushing fraudulent location data.”

In “The Myths of Data-Driven Campaigning,” by Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a professor in the communications and media studies department at Fordham University, writes that there is a

gap between the rhetoric of data driven campaigning and the realities of on the-ground practices, especially as they relate to the position of the Trump campaign compared to others. All but the most sophisticated digital and data-driven strategies are imprecise and not nearly as novel as the journalistic feature stories claim.

Baldwin-Philippi is very critical of the Trump campaign’s use of email, charging that its “email efforts were riddled with errors that showed a lack of understanding and care for the analytic outcomes of their messages.”

Her tone is very different in the case of social media:

The Trump campaign’s greatest triumph in data-driven strategy was its use of microtargeted Facebook ads, taking the form of sidebar and in-feed ads, targeted by demographics and other Facebook-created interest categories, as well as ‘dark posts’ (nonpublic posts that the campaign can make visible to whomever it wants) and promoted posts.

In an email, Baldwin-Philippi downplayed the significance of the fact that in 2016 Trump spent more heavily on digital campaigning than Clinton. But looking toward 2020, she said, “I’m inclined to see the scale differential currently happening (Trump vs. Dem primary field) as somewhat more important, due to the current difference being much more lopsided.”

There is an ongoing, extensive debate over the effectiveness — and the ethics — of digital campaigning, but there is reason to believe that such campaigning will be even more critical to the Trump re-election drive.

As is evident in the polls, Trump has the support of a minority of voters and little chance of winning a majority of the popular vote. If he is to win re-election, he must not only turn out his base, but also turn out — and in many cases register in the first place — men and women who are predisposed in his favor but who rarely cast ballots, if they ever do.

In addition, Trump and Parscale are likely to deploy every available tool to suppress turnout for the Democratic nominee via carefully targeted messages to those who dissent from one or more planks of the Democratic platform.

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Over the next year, Republican operatives will strive to discern the issues that frighten or anger voters, develop the most effective messages, design optimal delivery systems and induce targets either to cast ballots or stay at home.

Trump will have an open field at least into March 2020 with Democratic advocacy groups — as opposed to Democratic candidates — trying to fill the gap.

“The thought that Trump’s paid messaging might go unanswered for an entire year has driven Democratic organizations including Priorities USA and American Bridge to launch the kind of large-scale, multistate digital advertising campaigns we usually expect from political parties and presidential campaigns,” Colin Delany, a Democratic digital consultant, wrote in a Sept. 9 article in Campaigns and Elections.

Delany followed up with an email to me:

Looking back at 2016, the brilliance of the Trump campaign was to use advanced commercial marketing tools and Facebook’s inherent data-driven targeting abilities to reach potential supporters around many issues at once and at a huge scale. And to get them on an email list so they could raise money from them, which the campaign and the party are still doing. I’m not sure if Democratic campaigns are planning to do Facebook campaigns at the same scale, though they’ve certainly been pouring money into Facebook for donor-recruitment. And their teams surely have the skills to do it, if they decide it’s the right strategy.

Even if the Democrats settle on a nominee by March 2020, he or she will have seven months to catch up with the work Trump and Parscale started four years earlier.

In high-tech political warfare, recent history shows that sitting presidents without primary challengers — Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2012 — developed voter contact weaponry that their opponents — John Kerry and Mitt Romney — had neither the time nor the money to match.

This time may be different.

In terms of money, animosity toward Trump will produce a flood of cash for the presumptive Democratic nominee. While the lack of time to roll out the optimal digital campaign may be problematic, the Democratic Party has other problems getting its message across effectively.

One of the Democrats’ struggles has been to infuse its digital contacts with voters with powerful enough emotional content to strengthen motivation.

Republican and conservative groups understand that “digital content is the point, not the window dressing,” Lindsay Holst, director of digital strategy in the Obama White House, told Vanity Fair. “We’re lacking the necessary volume of emotional messaging that appeals to people as human beings, not as data points.”

Peter Hamby, the author of the Vanity Fair article Holst appeared in, wrote that the right in 2016 was

flooding Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with memes, junk news, misleading statistics, and links designed to inflame voter sentiment around hot-button cultural issues like race, immigration, and identity. But Democrats, always on message, were sticking to paid advertising.

“It was becoming clear that one side had weaponized the internet, and one side hadn’t,” Curtis Hougland, the founder of MainStreetOne, a liberal Democratic messaging firm, told Hamby. “Democrats want to focus on facts and figures. The other side plays into fears and taps into emotions, and they show it to you. It’s all about emotional resonance,”

Since the 2016 debacle, the Democratic National Committee has struggled to completely revamp its voter lists, the core of any high-tech strategy, but, according to Wired, there is still much to be done. In a March 2019 article “Inside the Democrats’ Plan to Fix Their Crumbling Data Operation,” Issie Lapowsky reported that the party’s new digital operatives “will have their work cut out for them.”

Lapowsky explained why:

There’s little question among Democratic operatives that the party’s fundamental data infrastructure was in desperate need of an upgrade. But having a data repository that’s merely functional is hardly enough. For one thing, there’s a growing awareness that Democrats also need to rethink their approach to digital advertising.

In 2016, Lapowsky pointed out,

the Trump campaign drastically outspent the Clinton campaign on platforms like Facebook. Trump’s then-digital director and current campaign manager Brad Parscale has argued that Facebook was the reason Trump won. Now, according to recently compiled numbers on presidential digital advertising, history is threatening to repeat itself.

Democrats have a shot at creating a digital infrastructure equal or equivalent to the one Republicans have built. But even if they manage that, will it have the emotional suppleness it needs to move voters?

Read the original text at The New York Times.

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