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Trump's Disinterest In Data Has Some Republicans Worried

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump caused a stir recently by saying that data and campaign technology was "overrated" in the political world.
Matt Rourke
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump caused a stir recently by saying that data and campaign technology was "overrated" in the political world.

Donald Trump has broken rule after rule on his way to becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Now, Trump may be ready to break another.

High-tech data operations have become a mainstay of presidential campaigns over the past two decades.

But Trump recently told an interviewer that he sees data as "overrated."

Earlier this month, he told The Associated Press he plans to use only a "limited" amount of the data models and microtargeting that most political observers — but not Trump — view as key to Barack Obama and George W. Bush's White House wins.

"Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me," Trump told The Associated Press.

There's no question that Donald Trump is a little leery of technology. Trump once said in a deposition that he "doesn't do the email thing." There are pictures of him reading printed out versions of websites like the Huffington Post.

And, talking about his business empire on the campaign trail this spring, he made a point to say he built real things — office buildings, hotels and apartment complexes. "It's not the computer stuff, and the Internet stuff," he told a Racine, Wis., crowd ahead of the state's primary. "You know, you open it and you open a love site and it's worth $700 million since Day One, and the kids never saw anything like it."

In Wisconsin, Trump seemed outright mystified by Silicon Valley culture. "You know they come up to meet me — a lot of the guys from [Silicon Valley] — and they're wearing undershirts. I could tell you stories. ... They're wearing roller skates."

But when Trump said data and campaign technology was "overrated" in the political world? Well, that got a lot of people's attention.

After all, most presidential campaigns base every decision on their big databases of information about voters, and models of what they think the electorate will look like. That information is often tapped to "help campaigns figure out which voters to contact, what to say, how best to reach them," said Daniel Kreiss, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina.

"How to efficiently buy television and digital advertising to reach groups of voters. How to test messages," said Kreiss, who has written two books on how presidential campaigns have tracked down, processed and analyzed data about voters.

The Associated Press reports that in April, Trump's campaign spent $1 million on campaign paraphernalia like baseball caps while spending less than a third of that on data.

Chris Wilson agrees with Kreiss.

Wilson ran data and polling for Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, where he and other staffers tried to learn everything they could about the voters in each primary and caucus state.

They searched for data about who had voted in recent elections, who was showing up to their rallies, who said what about Cruz on Facebook, and used it to build elaborate statistical models predicting what primary elections could look like. "It allowed us to know who Sen. Cruz should talk to," Wilson said. "Who we should call, who we should mail. Who needed to see our TV ads. And it also helped us spend our money more effectively."

Kreiss said that was the case for Barack Obama's two campaigns, as well. "Tens of millions of dollars were saved because they figured out exactly what spots to buy on things like cable television, in order to reach the voters they wanted to reach," he said.

Modeling, and its flip side of using that information to microtarget specific sets of persuadable voters, has become the new norm for campaigns.

In fact, the Republican National Committee has spent years trying to beef up its data operations. "What we want to make sure is that anyone running with an 'R' after their names has the best data they can get their hands on," said Katie Walsh, the RNC's chief of staff.

"I think Mr. Trump, through the primary, didn't rely a ton on data, but I believe after working with his team — and we've got a great partnership and we have ongoing conversations that have been great — that they realize that data is an important piece of making sure they win in November," she said.

Nearly 60 RNC staffers will be working on data operations for Trump and other Republicans this fall. And Trump says he plans to rely on the party for a lot of that campaign infrastructure. "The RNC's been doing it for many years," Trump said this week, referring to putting together a broader campaign infrastructure. "Reince [Priebus] has really upped it. And all over the country, they have very good people. And part of the benefit is, we get to use those people."

Still, outsourcing most of that work to the party, and not the campaign itself, is highly unusual.

But maybe Trump doesn't need to use all this advanced modeling to track down voters.

After all, he hardly spent any money on television ads during the primary campaign, compared to Republican opponents. He didn't even have a pollster until recently.

But Trump has dominated the national conversation since the day he entered the race.

"I don't even know if dominated is the best word. It's probably even more than that," said Matthias Reynolds of Zignal Labs, a company that has been measuring and analyzing online conversation about the presidential race. "He's like the NFL, and everyone else is maybe playing pee wee."

In Zignal Labs' D.C. offices, staffers monitor what's happening online on four large TV monitors. The yellow line tracking conversation about Donald Trump hovers far above every other candidate.

In fact, if you add up all of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders' mentions over the past week, they still don't add up to Trump's. "You know, this isn't two generic members of Congress running for the first district of Maryland, that we've never heard of," said Zignal's Pete Eskew. "This is the secretary of state, former first lady, presumable nominee. He has twice as much conversation as both of them.'

Over the course of the Republican primary, there were only two types of occasions where other candidates would garner as much online chatter as Trump: when they dropped out of the race, or picked a fight with Trump.

So maybe Trump doesn't need to invest in analytics and microtargeting. After all, he's able to get his message to voters all across the country right now at little or no cost to his campaign.

Many Republicans warn that would still hurt the party. Statewide and local candidates still need voters to turn out — and they can't drive news cycles with their Twitter feeds.

And data collection is a long-term project. If a presidential campaign isn't collecting it, the party can't study what worked and what didn't, as it plots out future White House runs.

UNC's Daniel Kreiss says a data-free Trump campaign could even put a damper on the number of new Republican political firms that pop up over the coming years. "Because one of the patterns I found in my research is that presidential campaign staffers often found their own new ventures after campaign cycles," he said, "to transfer knowledge and technology across election cycles."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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