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Is the use of big campaign data breaking our politics?

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton suggested
that her data operation simply wasn’t as good as the

Drew Angerer/Getty

Campaigns can tailor messages directly to you like never before.

With services such as Facebook and Google providing campaigns
with the ability to micro-target smaller levels and with greater
efficiency, campaigns are increasingly looking toward a valuable
tool to help push voters out to the polls in favor of their

After the 2016 election, a lot of attention was given to how
inflammatory, false, and misleading content on Facebook, Google,
and elsewhere online further polarized the electorate. But far
less attention was aimed at the use of big data in campaigns, and
the effects that the resulting messaging had on political
polarization in the US.

It was a topic that Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,”
attempted to tackle
in a mid-March column
titled “How Big Data Broke American

Todd’s argument was that the misuse of advanced campaign
analytics information led campaigns to simply aim for maximum
base turnout, rather than aiming for the increasingly small piece
of the pie in the center: the persuadable voter. As a result,
both Republicans and Democrats have been pulled further to the
right and left in their messaging and governing, and they are now
responsible only to their supporters, rather than their

“Why? Big Data — a combination of massive technological power and
endlessly detailed voter information — now allows campaigns to
pinpoint their most likely supporters,” Todd wrote. “These tools
make mobilizing supporters easier, faster and far less expensive
than persuading their neighbors. Of course, this isn’t an
argument that data itself — be it ‘good’ data or ‘bad’ data —
broke the system. It’s how the data was misused and manipulated
that brought us to a breaking point.”

The 2016 presidential cycle saw Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas launching
his campaign with the firm Cambridge Analytica, a firm that
claimed to be able to build a “psychographic” profile of voters.
It saw a website designer, Brad Parscale, becoming the most
recognizable face of Republican data at the helm of Project
Alamo, the Trump campaign data venture that reportedly had “three
major voter suppression operations under way” near the end of the

After the campaign, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary
Clinton suggested that her data
simply wasn’t as good as the Republicans’, pointing
at what she considered a “bankrupt” operation as one of the
reasons for her defeat to President Donald Trump.

A number of campaign veterans and data-analytics experts told
Business Insider that, yes, there is the potential to misuse data
to a negative effect. But each was quick to say that data has not
played as great of a role in polarization in comparison to a
splintering media, gerrymandered districts, and a tendency for
Democratic base voters to pack themselves in major cities,
somewhat limiting their electoral power on congressional

To say that the use of big data has led to a more staunchly
polarized country “gives some of these people a little bit too
much credit for influencing what’s happening in the country and
not vice-versa,” Tim Miller, who served as communications
director for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential
campaign, told Business Insider, citing the “self-sorting” of
voters in urban and more rural areas as well as in social
networks that are increasingly less diverse in thought and

That’s what’s “driven campaigns more towards a kind of
rally-the-base turnout model” in recent elections, he said.

“Has that somewhat by, you know, targeted messaging that inflames
people’s views on the left and the right? Sure, I think you could
argue that it’s been exacerbated somewhat by that,” Miller said.
“But it’s also been by social trends.”

“I do think if you look at Facebook, for example, it’s really
easy to target people on Facebook with niche messages that kind
of inflame their prior beliefs,” he continued. “And then those
people share with their friends, who tend to be like-minded,
because of the sorting that’s happened in the country. So
definitely I think they use these tools to exacerbate it, but I
don’t think it’s the cause.”

The tools have changed

In 2008, Democrats were coming off of two consecutive electoral
defeats, and the Democratic National Committee was seeking to
develop new methods of targeting voters. Publicly available
information quickly populated voter profiles. Voter data included points
such as vote history, party registration, gender, age, location,
and race.

By the time President Barack Obama wrapped up back-to-back
electoral victories, with the Democratic data operation given
much of the credit for the successes, the GOP had started to
invest more heavily in getting its own data operation up to par.
The Republicans would spend roughly four years closing the gap
between the parties in their respective data infrastructures.

In the final months of the presidential election last year, the
Republican National Committee was proclaiming that it had figured
out a new way to target on Facebook that, in its early uses, was
proving to be successful. And Parscale, the head of Trump’s data
team, was leading an operation that was reportedly shaping an increasing
amount of Trump’s political and travel strategy
, in addition
to his fundraising.

Parscale may be called before
the House Intelligence Committee
soon to answer questions
about whether there were any connections between the Trump
campaign’s digital operation and Russian officials.

Brad Parscale at Trump Tower in December, 2016
Brad Parscale.
Angerer/Getty Images

After the 2016 election, Parscale and his team took plenty of
credit for both Trump’s improbable win, claiming to see the path
to victory form ahead of time. Scott Tranter, a cofounder of the
data-analytics firm Optimus, told Business Insider that the
biggest misconception about the use of data in campaigns is that
“it wins or loses the election.”

“It has a marginal, on-the-edge effect in some close races,”
Tranter, who was on the data team for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016
presidential bid, said. “So close races matter. The vast majority
of races are not close.”

Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s presidential campaign manager, said that
although campaigns are able to accumulate data “on steroids” now,
the goal of campaign messaging has remained unchanged throughout
American history. He cited Abraham Lincoln’s guide to

“It’s like a list of 10 things,” Sullivan said.”Basically,
identify who is voting, ascertain as to who they will vote for,
determine who’s undecided, and persuade the undecideds. This s—
hasn’t changed in the following 150 years.”

“Now, the tactics have changed,” he continued. “And the tools. It
has become somewhat more scientific.”

‘If you get your base out, you’ll win’

Chuck Todd’s argument — that data has allowed campaigns to aim
for maximum base turnout instead of working to persuade undecided
voters — was echoed by others, even if they disagreed that it was
the use of data itself that was contributing to increased
polarization in the country.

Jesse Ferguson, deputy national press secretary for Clinton’s
2016 campaign, said it’s “easier than ever” to identify people
who agree with your message and only speak to others who do as

“People who want to divide the country are more able to because
they can use data to find only the sympathetic audience,” he
said. “It is rarely a winning strategy, and it is not a unifying
strategy. But it is more available today than it has ever been.”

But he called it “a chicken and an egg” to say whether
partisanship allowed partisan data, or if partisan data created
partisanship. “There’s no way to say which was first,” he said.

Donald Trump
President Trump.
Somodevilla/Getty Images

Looking specifically at the past presidential campaign, Reed
Galen, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration
and worked on Bush’s and Sen. John McCain’s presidential
campaigns, told Business Insider that while Trump’s team used
data to “stoke” anger, it was clear data was not the difference
between a win or a loss.

“Use of data by his guys was making sure to stoke that anger, to
hit that adrenaline button to make those people show up,” he
said. “And you could argue that Hillary had all the data in the
world, and she couldn’t find any buttons to press on people to
get them to show up for her.”

Trump ran the antithesis of a data-driven campaign, Galen added,
saying that data is “great to have” but “you’ve always got to
take the data you get, whatever it is, and layer in some
humanity, the personality of the candidate. If you get your base
out, you’ll win.”

Scott Tranter, the Optimus cofounder, and Brian Stobie, another
cofounder at the company who worked on the Rubio campaign, both
insisted that going after a turnout-based message targeting
approach is the wrong move. Base turnout is something that can’t
be measured until a race is over, they said, while campaigns can
track the progress they’re making with undecided voters
throughout an election season.

“The analysis is blatantly wrong,” Stobie said. “I think whether
it’s any level campaign … 90% of the dollars we think we’re
spending on persuasion, not on turnout operation. Turnout is
something that we come back to on the Republican side. Democrats
are better at doing it in the long term, but Republicans come
back to it as an afterthought in the last month.”

“Just think about it in the most cynical terms,” he continued.
Data professionals “don’t make money off of turnout. It’s very
rare to do that. They make money trying to persuade people.”

Tranter pointed to an increasing availability of partisan media
as more a rationale for growing partisanship, rather than the use
of data.

“Those guys are running 24 hours a day, and they’re going after a
niche audience,” he said. “I’m only going after a niche audience
for about 60 to 90 days every two to four years. And I’m using
anywhere from $20 million to $60 million. Fox News in an
afternoon will blow through the equivalent of $20 to $60 million.
And so, it’s correlated. It might be correlated. I’m sure he
found some correlation between voter targeting and polarization.
But I’m not sure it’s the causative reason.”

The pair additionally criticized Clinton for pointing at her data
operation as a cause for loss. The electoral result, they said,
was “a statistical oddity,” not proof of a “bankrupt” data
operation, one they said was still a step above what the GOP is
able to provide.

“If I had to bet again, I would bet on the Hillary side,” Stobie
said. “Three days later or three days in advance. … The
Democrats didn’t lose because of their analytics.”

He continued: “What were the factors? No one ever knows, because
you just get one result. Reality is that she had a really good
data operation. We know the guys who ran it. Reality is we had no
good data operation. None of the good Republican data guys were
on that Trump campaign. He won in spite of his data deficiencies.
Now they’re the victors. Now, she does the stupidest thing on
earth and does correlation is causation. They won, ergo they had
the best data in existence.”

Tranter added that Clinton likely had the best analytics team,
while Trump “had just enough to win.”

Asked about Clinton’s comments, Ferguson said he couldn’t speak
to the substance of them because he wasn’t working closely with
the data team. But he said that if Democrats “rest on our
laurels” while conservative mega-donors such as the Koch brothers
and the Mercer family continue to invest heavily in Republican
data operations, Democrats will “wake up in January of 2019 with
Paul Ryan still having the gavel and January 2021 seeing Donald
Trump heading back into the White House.”

Andrew Therriault, formerly a leader on the DNC’s data operation,
publicly criticized Clinton for the comments in their immediate
aftermath. Now working for the city of Boston, Therriault pointed
to the Todd’s argument as a “stretch” lacking any “thesis.”

Hillary ClintonDrew Angerer/Getty Images

“The claim seems to be that, basically, because data allows
campaigns to target their supporters, that therefore there isn’t
an effort to persuade, and that has been the cause of
polarization,” he told Business Insider.  “And I think
the supposition in there — that I think is just a stretch, to put
it mildly — is that campaign persuasion, until recently, was what
kept us from being polarized. And that seems like a huge
assumption that there is no thesis for at all.”

Therriault wrote a Medium post in
titled “We Shouldn’t Blame Data for Bad Campaign
Messaging.” “Data can’t salvage bad campaigns, but it can help
good ones,” he wrote. “And for us to recover after 2016, we’re
going to need all the help we can get.”

He said a lot of focus on this issue has come about because of
Clinton’s failed campaign.

“That’s where all of this comes from,” he said. “And there are
questions to raise regarding their messaging strategy. But that’s
not about data, that’s about messaging. Data is not a strategy.
And data is not a replacement for strategy.”

For Therriault, figuring out who is still persuadable, in a
climate where he said roughly 10% of voters are “truly
independent,” is still “the holy grail of data.” Still, the past
election was one in which a lot of what was assumed about the
American electorate was thrown out the door.

“Obviously, this past election was anything goes,” he said.
“There were a lot of rules that just don’t apply anymore.”

Pointing to gerrymandering and the creation of extremely safe
partisan districts as more a cause for partisanship than data
itself, Miller compared blaming the latter to blaming a gun
manufacturer after a shooting.

“People are much more concerned about primary challenges for the
first time, and pleasing their base, than they ever were, rather
than a general election,” he said. “Sure, you can” misuse data.
“It’s also like blaming the gun manufacturer. Sure people use
voter data to target things, but that’s not the reason it’s

Taking aim at data assumes the premise that paid media, and not
earned media, is driving partisanship, Miller said.

“And it’s not, it’s the exact opposite,” he said. “It’s earned
media. There’s so much more earned content than ever before. And
let’s be honest, you don’t really use data to target the earned
media the same way.”

Sullivan agreed, citing Trump’s election as proof.

The Rubio campaign measured earned and paid impressions from the
day Rubio joined the campaign until he dropped out of the race in
March. Sullivan said there were just two weeks from the day Trump
joined the race that he did not have more earned impressions than
every other candidate combined.

“And so the sheer volume in his ability to drive earned media
just shut out everything else,” he said. “What you see out of
that is that wasn’t about using data to target anything. We were
able to measure it, but the fundamental was that Donald Trump
didn’t use data at all. He just knew how to get the media to take
the bait over and over again. He was PT Barnum. That is the exact
opposite of using analytics to target your message.”

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