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The Trump Campaign’s Unconventional Approach To Data

With little use of data, can his campaign ever work?

7Apr

Donald Trump’s campaign has not been what anyone would call ‘fact heavy’ thus far. PolitiFact, who use analytics to check the veracity of statements made by politicians and candidates, has found that just 2% of statements he’s made so far in his campaign have been entirely truthful. A staggering 76% have been found to be either ’mostly false’, ‘false’, or a ’pants on fire’ all out lie. Trump appears to view the truth with suspicion, and to be fair, this has served him well thus far. Which may explain the recent loss of his head of data operations, Matt Braynard.

It is unclear whether Braynard jumped or was pushed, but Trump’s decision to replace him with a former RNC data engineer named Witold Chrabaszcz, who has limited political experience, appears to show a certain level of disregard for the benefits of data analytics. Chrabaszcz, who goes by ‘Vito’, is regarded highly as a data engineer, but is largely unknown among GOP data strategists. Much of the responsibility has also fallen to another of his underlings, Ashton Adams, who has just one year’s work experience - an internship at Colgate.

In another twist, Braynard’s abrupt departure apparently didn’t give him time to hand over many of his passwords, which has left the campaign unable to access some of its own data. Whether Trump is bothered about this, it’s hard to say. It was only actually last October that Trump even seriously started assembling his data ground game, with little record of anyone having been employed prior to this. It was also only in October that he hired political data outfit L2 and rVotes to help with their data efforts.

The Trump campaign’s aversion to data, would seem to go against his commitment to ‘winning’. They appear to have ignored the lessons of the last two presidential elections, with much of President Obama’s success being put down to his strength in data analytics. Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, claims the ‘data team continues to grow,’ but according to data strategists, most presidential campaigns typically begin working with the voter data eight or nine months before the start of the primary season. The Trump campaign would have had no more than three months.

Trump's failures stand in stark contrast to his current competitor, Ted Cruz, and his likely future competitor Hillary Clinton - both of whom have invested heavily in data analysts.

The Democrats have been particularly progressive with data usage, and it is likely that the Hillary campaign will greatly benefit from the experience accumulated during the two data-centric Obama runs. Clinton has learnt the lessons of 2008, and packed her staff with tech-savvy advisers. She is said to have hired around a thousand digital experts to help boost her efforts.

On the Republican side, Ted Cruz is also ahead of the game. According to The Washington Post, the Cruz campaign has employed Massachusetts-based Cambridge Analytica to run the data-side of its operations. To develop its psychographic models, Cambridge surveyed more than 150,000 households across the country and scored individuals using five basic traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The Cruz campaign then modified the Cambridge template, renaming some psychological categories and adding subcategories to the list, such as ‘stoic traditionalist’ and ‘true believer’ and have been targeting individuals based on this segmentation.

Targeting is one of the primary ways that data is used in advertising, and politics is no different. Trump has a highly devoted central base, but many are not hopeful that there is much room for expansion, with even many Republicans making firm commitments not to vote for him. If he wants to extend his reach, he will need every tool at his disposal, but it may be that he is already too far behind. It is not even clear that if he does get the nomination, he will have the use of the data resources the Republicans already have. Former RNC digital director and co-founder of Republican analytics firm Echelon Insights, Patrick Ruffini, for one, has already joined the Never Trump campaign. However, at the end of the day, the only reason Cruz is at all competitive in this race is because he is running an excellent ground campaign. Trump is doing well in spite of his. Come the election proper, it may be that Trump again defies the odds and becomes president with the weak data campaign he currently has. All best evidence would suggest otherwise, but then Trump has never really been big on evidence.

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