Donald Trump considers political data “overrated.” He said so in May, when he told the Associated Press, “Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me.”
There is some truth in that. During the primaries, cable news, print media, and social media pundits made sure everyone heard Trump’s message. But with the pressure of the general election rising and Trump’s poll numbers falling, his campaign is embracing political data to reach voters.
Trump’s team has hired Cambridge Analytica, which claims to target voters based upon their psychological profiles. The National Review first broke the news, citing an unnamed Trump campaign official, and WIRED has confirmed the development. “In something so big, we want to bring in multiple data sources,” a Trump aide says, “to make sure we have the best opportunities to find the most persuadable voters and get people out to vote.”
As with all things involving Trump, this is not without controversy. Although Cambridge Analytica worked with Senator Ted Cruz and Ben Carson during the primaries, several Republican operatives tell WIRED they question the firm’s methodology, willingness to collaborate, and claims of involvement in major projects like Brexit. And the fact that Robert Mercer, a major GOP donor, is an owner of the company leaves some wondering if nepotism plays a role in any contracts the company lands.
But with few Republican vendors willing to work with the Trump campaign, some say they may have had few other options. “They’re the only ones who wanted to do it,” says Scott Tranter, whose data firm 0ptimus worked with the Marco Rubio campaign.
Is There Any There There?
The British number-crunchers and PhDs started working with down-ballot candidates in the US two years ago, and came to prominence this year touting its “psychographic targeting.” The approach supposedly builds on traditional ad targeting metrics like demographics (age, race, income) and behavior (voting, spending, online habits) by adding a person’s psychological profile.
To generate models, Cambridge, which employs data scientists and psychologists, draws on personality surveys it has conducted by telephone, email, and social media since 2013. It uses those samples to predict the personality traits of voters—traits like, say, neuroticism. Candidates can use those findings to tailor their message to a specific audience.
Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix claims his company’s data models “absolutely, indefatigably” raised Cruz’s poll numbers. “Every decision of the campaign—where to spend the money, who to target, how to target them, what to speak to them about, what channels of communications to use, what messages to send—was all driven by our data,” says Nix, who was among those included in WIRED’s Next List of business leaders.
Those who have worked with Cambridge say the company’s data minds are strong. “I think their data scientists are some of the best, most talented I’ve ever worked with,” says Chris Wilson, who was director of research, analytics, and digital strategy for the Cruz campaign.
But not even Nix, can say for certain whether Cruz’s strong primary showing was due to behavioral modeling or traditional demographic and polling data. “We didn’t take one ingredient out of the cake and say, ‘Which one performed better?’” he says.
Critics call the company’s lofty psychological targeting claims hype at best and snake oil at worst. One operative deemed it “most egregious.” Another said, “The general tone of folks who have worked with them is that there’s not a lot of there there.” And Sasha Issenberg noted last year that Cambridge Analytica’s approach yielded a wildly different assessment of him than methods favored by the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre.
Nix discounts Issenberg’s claim, saying, “It is not possible to assess the accuracy of a model from a single prediction.”
Detractors point to other problems. Apparently, Cambridge went on strike during the Cruz campaign and refused to share data with another vendor. That’s problematic, because decisions about advertising, messaging, and other matters depend upon such information. “That’s abnormal for campaigns,” said a source familiar with the situation. “You’re always going to have other people who do what you do, but these are tactics I’ve never really come across.” By April, the Cruz campaign had reportedly stopped using Cambridge.
It’s important to remember that politics is a ruthless sport, and for Republicans shut out of the campaign, it can be maddening to see a newcomer play so prominent a role. Nix, who worked in finance before joining Cambridge’s parent company, denies that Cambridge went on strike or that the Cruz campaign stopped working with the company, pointing to a tweet by campaign manager Jeff Roe saying as much.
But he does admit that Cambridge hesitated to share info. “We’re not going to give away any part of our data that can be reverse-engineered such that competitors can understand the intellectual property behind what we do and reconstruct or in any way copy what we do.” And he attributes much of the criticism to competitiveness and the fact that people don’t grasp what Cambridge does. “I’m sure not everyone has fully familiarized themselves with the methodology,” he says. “People sometimes are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
The Brexit Story
That doesn’t explain people’s confusion over the role Cambridge played in Britain’s “Leave” campaign. Headlines like “Will Brexit Masterminds Work for Trump?” and “Donald Trump Campaign Hires the Firm Behind ‘Brexit’” suggest it was instrumental in Britons’ voting to abandon the European Union.
But Cambridge Analytica played little role, according to a source who cited conversations with well-placed operatives within the company. An agreement announced late last year collapsed under budgetary constraints, the source says. That hasn’t stopped journalists from crediting Cambridge with working on Brexit, nor has it prompted the company to set things straight. “We’ve never perpetuated anything positive or negative about our involvement,” Nix says.
Detractors call the evasiveness typical. “They’re perfectly talented at what they really do, but they take credit for things they don’t do,” says one source. “That’s why the people who do what we do for a living are really put off. That’s a weak term for what I’m trying to say, but I’m trying to be nice.”
Part of Trump’s Plan
The Trump campaign isn’t interested in what people think, the campaign aide tells WIRED. It’s interested in results. The aide says the firm played a key role in identifying donors who helped the campaign raise $80 million in July—exceeding expectations and nearly matching Hillary Clinton’s haul. “They have shown us the value we have to pay them is worth a value to us,” the aide says.
The campaign sees other advantages. Lessons learned from the models Cambridge Analytica built for Carson and Cruz could help Trump. And Cambridge has bolstered its ranks of digital operatives, drawing from Governor Scott Walker’s campaign in particular. Still, the Trump aide says data gleaned from Cambridge is “one cog in a very large engine” fueled by information from the Republican National Committee and other vendors.
Although the Trump campaign has embraced data, it continues operating under a familiar motto. “Content is king,” the campaign aide says. “I believe the right message is as important or more important than who you give it to.” Cambridge Analytica is tasked with helping deliver that message. Whether it hits the target remains to be seen.