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Can Social Media Win Trump the White House?

Tim Maytom

Staff at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio prepare for the 2016 Republican National Convention

Staff at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio prepare for the 2016 Republican National Convention



This week sees politically active people from across the US gather in Cleveland, Ohio for the Republican National Convention, as the party seeks to set out its platform and kick the race for the next US President into high gear. The convention is perhaps the most contentious it has been for Republicans in decades, as Donald Trump has swept into the position of presumptive nominee on a wave of controversies, surprising many political analysts who just a year ago were calling his campaign a joke.

However, barring a floor challenge that would plunge the party into chaos, Trump is now the nominee and the Republican party’s lead in their charge to reclaim the White House after eight years of Democratic control. But given the role that cutting edge data analysis and marketing tactics played in both getting and keeping Obama in office in 2008 and 2012, has the ‘Grand Old Party’ been able to embrace the new world of digital?

As we discussed in last week’s examination of Obama’s 2012 campaign and its impact, many cited the Democrat’s domination of data-driven campaigning as a key deciding factor in their victory, and in the aftermath of the last Presidential campaign, political strategists on both sides of the aisle quickly woke up to the power that mobile and digital carry.

republican primary debateBuilding A Digital-First Party
In the early 2000s, a number of digital-first political consultants and marketers began to form agencies that would seek to take the power of big data and targeting and apply it to political campaigns. While they were relatively few in number, these pioneers had the foresight to know that the same tactics that were enabling companies to focus their advertising budget where it would have the most impact would also enable political candidates to do the same.

Firms like Engage, founded by Patrick Ruffini, eCampaign Director at the Republican National Committee from 2005 to 2007, Targeted Victory, which ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 digital operation, WPP-owned Crowdverb and Ozean Media have all focused on bringing these powerful data insights to Republican campaigns, a sometimes difficult challenge when it comes to high-level party officials who are not just politically conservative, but technologically conservative too. However, following 2012, their work is finally bearing fruit, with the GOP aware that in order to compete in a 21st century campaign, it needs cutting-edge tools.

This shift in mindset may not be enough for the party however. Much like many large corporations, the Republicans are facing a distinct lack of experienced workers when it comes to digital marketing. A study by Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor of political communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Christopher Jasinski, a graduate student there, found a sharp divide between Democrat and Republican digital skills. Of the 626 political operatives with experience in digital, data and analytics on every presidential campaign since 2004, only 123 were hired by Republican campaigns.

“Staffers who come to politics with significant work experience in other sectors or learn their trade outside of the established Beltway consulting culture are likely the sources of innovation in electoral politics,” claimed the study. “In rapidly changing technological environments and media systems characterised by high degrees of hybridity, parties, campaigns, representatives and consultancies are likely increasingly seeking staffers with up-to-date skill sets, as defined by the current practices in the technology and commercial sectors, to gain competitive advantage.”

Despite the number of firms now available that offer digital insights and big data-powered marketing for campaigns, many are relatively inexperienced with dealing with a campaign the size and scope of a run for President. What’s more, due to the highly contentious primary season that saw various Republicans battling it out to be the party’s nominee, some firms have thrown their support behind contenders who have now fallen by the wayside, leaving them in an awkward position when it comes to pitching for Trump’s campaign.

“There is going to be a real challenge in terms of finding people who were at the level the Obama campaign people were four years ago,” said Patrick Ruffini in an interview with the New York Times. Despite these difficulties, many Republicans say they are optimistic that this election cycle will help usher in a true cultural change for the party that places more emphasis on digital tools, and helps to recruit and nurture tech talent for future campaigns. However, there is still one X-factor the Republican establishment hadn’t counted on: the rise of Donald Trump.

donald trumpThe Trump Effect
While it may be struggling with the practical elements of transforming its campaign machinery to meet 21st century needs, the Republican National Committee appears unified in its awareness of the necessity for such tools. The RNC has made its largest ever digital ad deal, reserving $150m (£113m) worth of video ad inventory ahead of the general election, with a focus on mobile video, premium digital and high-impact placements.

It has worked with Google to target Hispanic voters, women, millennials and independents in swing states that could prove crucial, and is using media partners to ensure its ad spending remains agile in the lead up to crucial moments like the Presidential debates and the last few weeks ahead of the election.

This huge investment (the RNC spent around $390m in total during the 2012 election) is not only a sign of Republican’s commitment to digital, but also an admission that the party may need to be the one focusing on such efforts, as the candidate may not.

Donald Trump is notably not engaged with technology. He has told depositions in the past that he doesn’t use email, he has been photographed reading printed-out versions of websites, and he has called campaign data operations “overrated”, claiming that he doesn’t plan to spend much money on them during the general election.

Instead, Trump will rely on the RNC’s existing data operations team of around 60 staffers, planning to make use of the party’s infrastructure to power any analytics his campaign might need. But the RNC cannot purely be at his beck and call – the 2016 election cycle also includes races for 34 US Senate seats, 12 state Governors, every single Congressional district and countless local ballot issues across the 50 states. Pulled in so many directions, the RNC’s data team will likely struggle to cope.

Outsourcing his data operation, along with a number of other responsibilities, to the party rather than the campaign itself is a highly unusual move on Trump’s part, but then his entire campaign has been made up of unusual moves. During the primary season, he spent almost nothing on television ads compared to his opponents, and didn’t even employ a polling expert.

donald trump hispanics tweetThe $2bn Twitter Account
While Trump may not believe in the power of data, he certainly understands the power of social media. His controversial statements on Twitter have generated huge media coverage, and he has referred to his social media accounts as being worth “$2bn in free advertising” for his campaign. He boasts just under 10m followers on Twitter and around the same on Facebook, although reportedly less than half of those are within the US.

This huge following helped power Trump to his victory in the Republican primaries, enabling him to control the media conversation and portray himself as a renegade outsider who would say what other politicians wouldn’t. But while this tactic worked wonders in the primaries, leaving other Republican candidates unsure how to respond to his idiosyncratic approach to politics, can the same methods work in a general election?

Trump’s social media platforms are a megaphone, broadcasting his views to everyone and echoed back and forth by the free traditional media coverage they generate. But electoral politics relies on targeting swing voters in key states and districts. Trump’s tweets are seen by everyone, from die-hard supporters to vocal critics, but they are as likely to be retweeted by those mocking him as those praising his leadership. Social media may be free, but can it compare with the power of a data-driven campaign that targets the voters who could truly swing the election one way or the other?

There have been signs that as Trump adapts to being the Republican Party’s nominee and the different nature of the Presidential campaign, compared to the primary, he is revising some of his views. According to Politico, he has recently hired digital firm the Prosper Group, who worked with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio during the primaries, to aid online fundraising, and officials from his campaign recently met with an analytics firm, along with RNC representatives, to discuss targeted messaging. But it may be too late to play catch up for Trump, who is significantly behind presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in national polls. Only time will tell.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how Clinton built on the lessons of Obama’s 2012 tech operations to create one of the most digitally adept campaigns of all time, and how it may prove the key to defeating Trump come November.