As Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President draws closer, the reality of his incoming presidency is starting to hit people. Alongside the fear of the unknown is a nagging question: how did this happen? There’s been a lot of ink spilled on the topic, from the demography of Trump’s supporters, to their economic woes, their racial views, and alleged Russian hacking of the DNC. Yet for all the guessing and theorizing,Trump won, at least in part, because of the very effective digital strategy developed by his political team.
The campaign’s digital strategy used the same divide and conquer tactics towards the American electorate through data analysis that the candidate used in his rhetoric at rallies and in media appearances. First, the strategy aimed get out the extreme right vote for Trump. Second, it wanted to strategically depress the female and black vote. It worked—here’s how.
Due to the highly divisive nature of the GOP primary, it wasn’t until July that Trump and the RNC chair Reince Priebus (now the President-elect’s Chief of Staff) met to discuss how the finances and structural architecture would be organized. According to Joel Winston, the deal gave the candidate access to donors—but the RNC would pocket 80 percent of the raised funds.
The committee had Trump over a barrel, Winston claims.
At the time, the Trump campaign had virtually no digital infrastructure and hadn’t actively raised any money during the primaries. In fact, when the Trump campaign sent out its first e-mail solicitation in late June, about 60% of Trump’s emails were blocked by spam filters.
But with the added resources and access to the party’s professional staff, the campaign soon developed its digital arm: Project Alamo. The digital database and campaign operation was hatched from the mind of Brad Parscale, the campaign’s Digital Director. Parscale quickly found that promoting Trump’s candidacy was similar to marketing. And he found that Trump, a skilled self-promoter, was interested and engaged in Project Alamo and eager to learn about the marketing aspect of the plan.
Project Alamo worked quite well. Trump’s team identified extremist partisans and pursued them to get their enthusiasm up.The project also micro-targeted groups of voters likely to vote—perhaps unenthusiastically—for Clinton and flooded their social media feeds with negative stories in a strategy to depress turnout. This was easy to do. ProPublica revealed in late October that Facebook allowed advertisers to target by race at least until last fall.
The campaign used Facebook’s “dark posts” feature to target voters. The feature allows managed Pages to create posts and then leave them dormant for targeted publishing. This lets the Page administrators “manage delivery of ad content through audience filters” to “lookalike audiences.”
The campaign didn’t do this in every state, of course, but it did have targets from its internal polling simulator the “Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory.” These included Florida and Michigan, both of which states Trump won.
“Trump’s ‘voter suppression’ efforts that inverted Obama’s ‘get out the vote’ campaign worked really well,” said Lauren Garcia, a software developer and the founder of LevelNews.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign was operating from a place of high confidence and faith in the example of the Obama 08 and 12 campaigns. The idea was to cast a wide net for all liberal minded people in the GOTV effort and target white moderates.
“That coalition of voters that was so strong for Obama, including young people… they’re on board,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said in 2015.
Mook concentrated his efforts on the Obama campaign’s highly technocratic vision of GOTV efforts. Mook and the rest of the Brooklyn campaign headquarters were so convinced of their methodology, they ignored anecdotal reports from the field in favor of an algorithm named “Ada.”
The algorithm made a number of important—and electorally fatal—decisions for the campaign. In a postmortem published the day after the election, Washington Post reporter John Wagner said that “Ada” was informing decisions based on the data collected by the campaign.
The algorithm was said to play a role in virtually every strategic decision Clinton aides made, including where and when to deploy the candidate and her battalion of surrogates and where to air television ads — as well as when it was safe to stay dark.
We all know how that turned out. The Clinton campaign ignored the pivotal states of Wisconsin and Michigan and ended up losing the election in no small part because of that duo and rural Pennsylvania.
Where Clinton and her campaign spent millions and millions of dollars and political capital to reach a coalition that only existed through the charisma of Barack Obama, Trump and his campaign used the same kind of divisiveness and relentless messaging that had worked during the campaign to turn out the base and suppress the opposition.
Trump’s unorthodox and divisive approach to politics won him the presidency. Meanwhile, the Democrats are stuck in the same Ouroboros of confirmation bias about “how things are done” that the Clinton campaign was about their digital strategy. If the latter want to mount an opposition to the former, they need to rethink their tactics and how they react to a changing political battlefield.
You can reach Eoin Higgins on Facebook and Twitter.