Texas senator Ted Cruz has been called the Republican Barack Obama, and he is, indeed a young and brilliant conservative voice who’s taken Washington by storm since his election in 2012.
But the similarities don’t end there. In his quest for the presidency, Cruz is now looking to co-opt the tactic most credited with helping Obama win the White House in 2008 and 2012: Data analysis. The Cruz campaign hopes it can harness and build upon Team Obama’s famed ability to target and turn out voters in a nationwide race.
In 2012, Obama’s campaign won reelection by upending the turnout models pollsters and political analysts had relied upon for so long. African Americans, for example, turned out at a higher rate than whites for the first time in history, and they supported the president by an overwhelming majority.
The Cruz campaign is trying to pull off a similar feat with its base, tapping what it claims is a reservoir of dormant and disenchanted conservative voters, and it’s building on the methods developed by the Obama campaign to do so. Two top Cruz campaign aides spoke with National Review about the effort on the condition of anonymity. One of the aides says the push will result in “the most extensive grassroots program in American history.” Plenty of observers are skeptical that the Cruz campaign can deliver on that promise, but if they can, they’ll go into the primaries with a major advantage over their Republican rivals.
Cruz is now looking to co-opt the tactic most credited with helping Obama win the White House in 2008 and 2012: Data analysis.
Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics firm that has a handful of staffers embedded at Cruz campaign headquarters in Houston, is overseeing the program. It promises not only to target and motivate supporters, but also to identify voters who share characteristics with the campaign’s existing supporters — and what sorts of messages are most likely to persuade them. This is why Cruz’s team believes it can expand his base.
The company, according to several GOP sources, is owned in part by New York hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, whose family is also donating generously to a super PAC supporting Cruz’s campaign. Cambridge Analytica has also done business with several other groups to which Mercer has been a generous donor: The super PAC Ending Spending, which is bankrolled primarily by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, used the firm in the 2014 midterm election for projects in Oregon and Louisiana, as did the super PAC founded by former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
“The toughest thing you can ever do in a campaign is to get the names of the people who are supporting you,” says another top Cruz aide. That’s true: For ages, campaigns have shelled out millions of dollars for lists of voters sympathetic to their candidates and causes. “It’s almost impossible to get the names of the people that may support you or that would be open to supporting you,” the aide says. And that’s where Cambridge Analytica comes in.
The company uses a proprietary methodology known as “behavioral microtargeting” that pinpoints voters based on psychographic qualities — a mishmash of one’s personal traits, attitudes, values, opinions, and general lifestyle — to determine how open someone might be to supporting, say, a candidate like Ted Cruz. Then, it uses the same process to ascertain which messages would be most likely to earn that person’s support. Cambridge Analytica harnesses over a hundred different categories of publicly available information — variables such as age, historical party affiliation, and magazine subscriptions — for each registered voter.
One of the Cruz aides describes the approaches that have bedeviled Republicans in the past. “We communicate the same way with people when it doesn’t correspond with how they psychologically process information,” the aide says. The example he offers: Most supporters of gun rights aren’t actually gun owners, so an ad showing a father and son out duck hunting may not be the most effective way to target potential Cruz voters who already have strong pro–Second Amendment leanings.
Though staffers on the Cruz campaign declined to speak on the record, Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Republican pollster who is frequently in touch with the campaign, says it is relying heavily on Cambridge Analytica’s technology, and that its use will give the GOP a leg up in 2016. “This is the first full presidential election cycle where Republicans will be relying on data analytics to reach voters,” Conway says.
One of the aides says the push will result in ‘the most extensive grassroots program in American history.’
That doesn’t mean Cruz will have an easy go of it. In fact, even his own team admits privately the effort will be something of an uphill battle. “It’s going to be harder for us than it was for President Obama,” says the aide, “because he was able to do it in very densely populated urban areas, whereas we are going to take that model and implement it in the suburbs, rural areas, and urban areas.”
Cruz’s contention that conservative voters have stayed home because they’ve been uninspired by the GOP’s moderate nominees has plenty of critics. Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has repeatedly attacked it in National Review, noting, for example, that the number of self-described conservatives in the U.S. has fluctuated between 33 and 40 percent over the last 40 years, but has never surpassed that, meaning a Republican nominee has always had to attract independent voters to win the White House.
Approximately 7 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. RealClearPolitics’s Sean Trende, who authored a four-part series on the “missing white voters” of the 2012 election, identified these voters not as traditional Republicans, but as Reagan Democrats: rural, blue-collar, and lower-middle-class people who were likely to have been turned off by Mitt Romney’s wealth and by the Obama campaign’s relentless portrayal of him as an out-of-touch elitist.
#related#Cambridge Analytica’s technology has its skeptics, too. A Republican strategist familiar with the company’s approach describes it as “implausible.” “You can’t do psychoanalysis on millions of people based on what magazines they subscribe to,” he says.
The Cruz campaign’s attempt to harness psychographic information isn’t the Republican party’s first bite at the apple. The Romney campaign undertook a similar effort in 2012, though it was confined to identifying potential donors. The Associated Press chronicled Team Romney’s use of technology developed by Buxton Company, a firm with corporate clients like Restoration Hardware and Marriott Hotels, to target would-be donors. According to the AP, the company combined “marketing data with what is known in this specialized industry as psychographic information about Americans.” It called the Romney campaign’s efforts “the first example of a political campaign using such extensive data analysis.”
The Romney campaign may have raised record sums. Its attempt to translate that money into votes was less successful. The Cruz campaign, with the help of a top donor, is hoping to do better.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.