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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Look Inside the Trump Campaign’s Digital Media Strategy

On the the treasured myths entertained by Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign was the belief that the Trump campaign lagged badly in digital media operations. Media reports were full of disparaging comments about Trump’s poor or nearly nonexistant ‘ground game,’ coupled with references to the Clinton campaign’s whiz bang digital media edge. Both views appear to have been grossly overstated.

In Joel Winston’s Medium post, “How the Trump Campaign Built an Identity Database and Used Facebook Ads to Win the Election,” he explains:

…The Trump campaign used data to target African Americans and young women with $150 million dollars of Facebook and Instagram advertisements in the final weeks of the election, quietly launching the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history.

..Trump shrewdly invested in Facebook advertisements to reach his supporters and raise campaign donations. Facing a short-fall of momentum and voter support in the polls, the Trump campaign deployed its custom database, named Project Alamo, containing detailed identity profiles on 220 million people in America.

With Project Alamo as ammunition, the Trump digital operations team covertly executed a massive digital last-stand strategy using targeted Facebook ads to ‘discourage’ Hillary Clinton supporters from voting. The Trump campaign poured money and resources into political advertisements on Facebook, Instagram, the Facebook Audience Network, and Facebook data-broker partners.

“We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” a senior Trump official explained to reporters from BusinessWeek. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”

When the ballots were counted, African American turnout was substantially lower than for 2008 and 2012, and Clinton lagged significantly with young women behind projections based on polls. At salon.com, for example, Nico Lang notes, “While black voters accounted for 25 percent of all early ballots cast in the Sunshine State in 2012, that number dropped to just 16 percent on the eve of the 2016 election, as Politico reported…Amid data showing an 8.5 percent drop in blacks’ early voting in North Carolina, the state’s GOP sent out a press release arguing that this showed a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton’s campaign among people of color.”

It has been argued that the attrition of African American voters in 2016 was understandable, without Obama on the ballot, and Republican-driven voter suppression measures were also far more prevalent in 2016. However, Winston notes that the Trump campaign also created an animation of Clinton’s controversial “super predator” comment, and targeted large numbes of African Americans on Facebook.

As for the scope of the Trump campaign’s digital operations, Winston reports that “the Trump digital team consisted of 100 staffers, including a mix of programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters, and media buyers” headed by Brad Parscale in the campaign’s San Antonio HQ (hence ‘Project Alamo’).

In addition, “Parscale worked closely with President-Elect Trump and was one of select few members of Trump’s inner-circle entrusted to tweet from his personal Twitter account, @ realDonaldTrump…On the strength of Parscale’s ability to generate campaign donations using Facebook and e-mail, the digital operations division was the Trump campaign’s largest source of cash.”

Winston quotes Sasha Issenberg and Joshua Green, who wrote in Business Week that “Trump himself was an avid pupil. Parscale would sit with him on the plane to share the latest data on his mushrooming audience and the $230 million they’ve funneled into his campaign coffers.” In terms of Parscale’s methods, Winston notes:

Parscale uploaded the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of known Trump supporters into the Facebook advertising platform. Next, Parscale used Facebook’s “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists” to match these real people with their virtual Facebook profiles. With Facebook’s “Audience Targeting Options” feature, ads can be targeted to people based on their Facebook activity, ethic affinity, or “location and demographics like age, gender and interests. You can even target your ad to people based on what they do off of Facebook.”

Parscale then expanded Trump’s pool of targeted Facebook users using “Lookalike Audiences”, a powerful data tool that automatically found other people on Facebook with “common qualities” that “look like” known Trump supporters. Finally, Parscale used Facebook’s “Brand Lift” survey capabilities to measure the success of the ads…Parscale also deployed software to optimize the design and messaging of Trump’s Facebook ads.

Winston also reports that “RNC Chairman Reince Preibus famously invested more than $100 million dollars into the party’s data and infrastructure capabilities since Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss…The RNC granted Trump access to its list of 6 million Republicans, but Trump could only keep 20% of any cash he raised from the list. The other 80% of campaign donations belonged to the RNC.” Further,

Trump’s revolutionary database, named Project Alamo, contains the identities of 220 million people in the United States, and approximately 4,000 to 5,000 individual data points about the online and offline life of each person. Funded entirely by the Trump campaign, this database is owned by Trump and continues to exist.

Trump’s Project Alamo database was also fed vast quantities of external data, including voter registration records, gun ownership records, credit card purchase histories, and internet account identities. The Trump campaign purchased this data from certified Facebook marketing partners Experian PLC, Datalogix, Epsilon, and Acxiom Corporation. (Read here for instructions on how to remove your information from the databases of these consumer data brokers.)…Another critical supplier of data for the Trump campaign and Project Alamo was Cambridge Analytica, LLC, a data-science firm known for its psychological profiles of voters…The locations of Trump’s campaign rallies, the centerpiece of his media-centric candidacy, were chosen by a Cambridge Analytica algorithm that ranked places in a state with the largest clusters of persuadable voters.

“I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine,” says the Trump campaign Chairman Steve Bannon. (Bannon is also a Board Member of Cambridge Analytica.) “Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”

Winston clearly believes that Trump’s digital media operations were the pivotal factor leading to his Electoral College victory. We’ll leave it to historians to argue about whether that’s an overstatement, in light of all of the other factors, which together add up to a giant clusterf*ck. But Dems surely now have enough evidence, thanks to Winston, to bury forever the quadrennial myth of Democratic digital dominance in presidential elections.

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