Donald Trump recently referred to political data as “overrated,” saying that “Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me.”
It is undoubtedly true that political data is often over-hyped in campaign journalism. And Trump is right that the candidate on the ticket is more important than “data” at securing and turning out votes.
However, what Trump misses — and what will be the Republican Party’s loss not only in 2016 but potentially in future campaigns — is that data helps campaigns be more efficient and effective. Data helps campaigns figure out which voters to contact, what to say, and how best to reach them. Data helps campaigns more efficiently buy television and digital advertising to reach targeted groups of voters. Data underlies message testing and the experiments that help campaigns figure out who is persuadable and what messages will persuade them. Data underlies the email and web design testing that can result in millions of additional dollars and volunteers.
In sum, data does not win elections, as the Cruz campaign seemingly learned. But data helps campaigns nonetheless.
Trump’s disavowal of data will hurt the Republican Party not only in this cycle but in years to come. As I outline in my forthcoming book, “Prototype Politics,” political data is not the product of any one electoral cycle. The infrastructure required to gather, manage, integrate and update data is costly and technology-intensive and demands considerable expertise.
Presidential campaigns are important because they have lots of resources and can do things no other campaign can do — make significant investments in infrastructure, generate millions of voter contacts that enrich voter files, provide staffers with experience and expertise, and direct resources to vendors and thereby build their own capacity to gather and analyze data.
The absence of investments in data and analytics by the Trump campaign will only deepen the Republican Party’s disadvantage when it comes to political data. In 2004, practitioners in both parties believed that the reelection campaign of George W. Bush had better voter data and more robust systems for collecting, managing and analyzing it, more sophisticated field efforts and better technologies that supported voter contact. As I have chronicled, the Democrats then invested in new infrastructure, including a voter database and interface system called VoteBuilder, that underpins nearly every Democratic campaign to this day.
While the Democrats were developing this party infrastructure, a degree of complacency set in within the Republican Party. Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, hamstrung in part by its reliance on public financing, hired just 15 staffers in the areas of technology, digital, data or analytics over the course of the campaign.
In contrast, the comparatively flush 2008 Obama campaign, which eschewed public financing, hired 131 staffers in technology, digital, data and analytics. The Obama campaign gave resources to many vendors — most notably Blue State Digital and Voter Activation Network (now NGP-VAN) — which helped them build capacity. The Obama campaign also provided the party with an extraordinary pool of small donors, millions of voter contacts generated by its expansive field operation, and staffers with specialized expertise and presidential campaign experience.
This paid dividends for the 2012 cycle, and Democrats are still reaping its benefits today. In an interview with me early in 2012, one former Republican Party staffer summed up the differences between the two parties like this: “where they maybe could have 500 or 1,000 people that could manipulate state level voter data, and we had 50, maybe.”
This meant that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was already behind Obama at the start of the 2012 campaign. That disadvantage was significantly compounded by the fact that Romney faced a protracted primary and Obama enjoyed what I call a “technical advantage of incumbency.”
The Obama campaign had a year and a half and comparably greater resources to start putting together its data and analytics teams, coordinate with the Democratic Party and develop its technology “products.” According to FEC data, Obama’s campaign had $250 million more than Romney’s, which for Romney translated into fewer in-house staffers, technology projects, field infrastructure and political data. (Candidate spending is the most important with respect to political data because campaigns make investments in field infrastructure, data and analytics, while outside groups primarily engage in broadcast advertising.)
For example, of the Obama reelection bid’s 342 staffers in technology, digital, data and analytics, 58 had primary work experience in commercial industry, and 48 came to the campaign with primary work backgrounds for technology or data/analytics firms. By comparison, the Romney campaign hired 87 staffers in technology, digital, data and analytics, 34 with primary backgrounds in commercial industry and seven in technology or data/analytics. These differences are important because these staffers often go on to work for other campaigns, such as Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s, or found new ventures that carry political knowledge and technologies across cycles.
One example is Civis Analytics, a data and analytics firm founded by Obama 2012 veteran Dan Wagner that was staffed by about one-third of the Obama 2012 analytics department. Several former Civis staffers are now working with Clinton’s campaign. Civis is one of 19 new organizations founded by Obama 2012 staffers, compared with three founded by veterans of Romney’s run.
These investment differentials make up part of the advantage Democrats have in 2016. It appears that Republicans will again struggle to shrink that advantage. Many of the GOP’s top analytics talent, such as Romney veteran and Deep Root Analytics founder Alex Lundry, worked for competitors to Trump and are effectively sidelined from the presidential race. Meanwhile, data and analytics firms such as i360, which is allied with the Koch Brothers, will not work with the presumptive GOP nominee.
Trump’s small campaign organization has thus far relied on social media to drive news coverage. Given the campaign’s history and Trump’s comments, they do not appear inclined to change. Trump is partnering with the Republican National Committee to run its field program — but John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found that the RNC was less effective than Obama’s candidate-centered operation in 2012.
Regardless of the outcome in November, Trump’s lack of investment in data, analytics and technology will continue the same pattern of the 2008 and 2012 cycles. There will be comparatively fewer GOP staffers with presidential campaign experience who can work on future campaigns, less data produced from field organizing that future candidates for all levels of office can use, fewer experiments in persuasion and turnout to inform voter modeling, and fewer firms launched after the cycle to build additional knowledge and technologies.
Meanwhile, the organizations that provide data and analytics to the Republican Party will miss out on large contracts with the nominee, and as a result will fail to increase their capacity to engage in this work.
All of this means that the Democratic Party’s edge in data and analytics should continue for years to come, even under a President Trump.
Daniel Kreiss is an assistant professor in the School of Media and Journalism and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of the forthcoming “Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy.”