Politics & Policy

Trump Campaign Turns to ‘Psychographic’ Data Firm Used by Cruz

Trump arrives at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., August 4, 2016. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
The GOP nominee makes a late attempt at data-driven targeted messaging.

The company closely associated with Ted Cruz’s data-centric primary campaign has switched teams: Cambridge Analytica, the London-based outfit that boasts an ability to target voters based on their unconscious psychological biases is now working behind the scenes for Donald Trump. According to a Trump aide, the company has approximately ten data scientists embedded with Giles-Parscale, the San Antonio-based firm behind Trump’s website and his broader digital operation, to which the campaign paid $1.6 million in June alone.

Their presence among a digital team that numbers about 70 people is evidence of a reversal of sorts for a candidate who as recently as May declared data-driven campaigns “overrated.” In the primary, Trump relied almost exclusively on earned media and big rallies to turn out voters.

Cambridge Analytica drew attention early in the primary season as the Cruz campaign paid top dollar to experiment with its cutting-edge technology. The firm played a key role getting the senator’s digital operation up and running, according to Cruz campaign Jeff Roe: It assisted in building Cruz’s website as well as in establishing the campaign’s data infrastructure, and doing online fundraising and digital advertising. All told, the Cruz campaign paid the company, which is reportedly owned by New York City hedgefund billionaire Robert Mercer, one of Cruz’s most generous benefactors, over $6.7 million. The company also did work for former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and for the Leave campaign in the United Kingdom where, according to the Daily Beast, it crafted messages targeting first-time voters and “those who felt left out of the political process.”

It’s rare for data-targeting firms or political consultants more broadly to work for more than one presidential campaign over the course of an election season. But Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, endorsed Trump after Cruz dropped out of the race in May and denounced Cruz late last month for his failure to do so, and Cambridge Analytica’s allegiances have followed those of its owners. It’s a development that reveals how closely tied money and politics are even for a candidate that has denounced the influence of wealthy donors. In fact, the vast majority of the candidates for which Cambridge Analytica has worked are also those to whom Mercer, one of the most generous donors in Republican politics, has donated.

The company, which burst onto the American political scene in 2012, boasts of its ability to assemble so-called psychographic profiles of American voters based on five dominant personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — and to target them with uniquely crafted messages based on their unconscious biases. The emphasis on psychology differentiates it from traditional data firms that specialize in “microtargeting,” which tracks consumer data and behavior to target voters; their method was was, wrote Bloomberg’s Sasha Issenberg, “the most audacious new analytical innovation foisted on American politics this year.”

The firm worked with the Cruz campaign to make inroads on that front, and the Trump campaign is trying to do so now, but it is both a costly and a time-consuming proposition.  The Cruz campaign, which sliced and diced voter profiles thousands of different ways and developed its own sophisticated targeting and turnout operation — appealing to some Iowa voters on the issue of fireworks deregulation, for example — stopped psychologically profiling voters entirely after South Carolina, the third early-state contest, when the pace of the campaign picked up.

#related#Inside Trump Tower, the decision to work with the data-targeting firm was fraught with controversy, according to a Trump aide familiar with the campaign’s internal conversations. After the Trump team, under pressure from the Republican National Committee and others to ramp up its ground game and voter-targeting operation, met with Cambridge Analytica officials in late June, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner were at loggerheads: While Kushner wanted to bring the company aboard, Manafort opposed the move.

It was Kushner, a longtime friend of Giles-Parscale co-founder Brad Parscale, according to the Trump aide, who brought the San Antonio firm aboard, which then brought the Cambridge Analytica data scientists in house. The Trump campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica, declined to comment.

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