Donald Trump’s data and algorithms: are they special?

(This posting is culled mostly from two reports in Bloomberg, here and here. To save hyperlinking I have not repeated the citations everywhere.)

Bloomberg said: “To outsiders, the Trump campaign often appears to be powered by little more than the candidate’s impulses and Twitter feed.” However, Bloomberg reporting makes clear that there was a serious and coordinated ICT effort behind the campaign. This began with a database of supporters known as ‘Project Alamo’.

“in August, Project Alamo’s data began shaping even more of Trump’s political and travel strategy—and especially his fundraising.”

“After a March event in Chicago devolved into a melee, Parscale decided to stop relying on the ticketing service Eventbrite and build his own tool to accept RSVPs. He says he coded the program himself in two days so eventgoers would have to confirm via mobile phone. The added layer would weed out fraudulent requests placing tickets in protesters’ hands—and also collect supporters’ phone numbers….Parscale was given a small budget to expand Trump’s base and decided to spend it all on Facebook. He developed rudimentary models, matching voters to their Facebook profiles and relying on that network’s “Lookalike Audiences” to expand his pool of targets. He ultimately placed $2 million in ads across several states, all from his laptop at home, then used the social network’s built-in “brand-lift” survey tool to gauge the effectiveness of his videos, which featured infographic-style explainers about his policy proposals or Trump speaking to the camera. “I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Parscale says. “It’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names…..”

“After Trump won the Indiana primary, vanquishing his remaining rivals, Parscale had to integrate his do-it-yourself operation with two established players who would jostle for primacy as supplier of Trump’s data. The first was Cambridge Analytica, on whose board […Trump staffer Steve… ] Bannon sits. Among its investors is the hedge fund titan Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, who were about to become some of the largest donors to the Trump cause. Locations for the candidate’s rallies, long the centerpiece of his media-centric candidacy, are guided by a Cambridge Analytica ranking of the places in a state with the largest clusters of persuadable voters….Cambridge Analytica’s statistical models isolated likely supporters whom Parscale bombarded with ads on Facebook, while the campaign bought up e-mail lists from the likes of Gingrich and Tea Party groups to prospect for others. Some of the ads linked directly to a payment page, others—with buttons marked “Stand with Trump” or “Support Trump”—to a sign-up page that asked for a name, address, and online contact information…..While his team at Giles-Parscale designed the ads, Parscale invited a variety of companies to set up shop in San Antonio to help determine which social media ads were most effective. Those companies test ad variations against one another—the campaign has ultimately generated 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content—and then roll out the strongest performers to broader audiences. At the same time, Parscale made the vendors, tech companies with names such as Sprinklr and Kenshoo, compete Apprentice-style; those whose algorithms fared worst in drumming up donors lost their contracts.”

“Today, housed across from a La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery along Interstate 410 in San Antonio, the digital nerve center of Trump’s operation encompasses more than 100 people, from European data scientists to gun-toting elderly call-center volunteers.” … “It’s built a model, the “Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory,” to weight and rank the states that the data team believes are most critical to amassing the 270 electoral votes Trump needs to win the White House.” … “Despite Trump’s claim that he doesn’t believe the polls, his San Antonio research team spends $100,000 a week on surveys (apart from polls commissioned out of Trump Tower) and has sophisticated models that run daily simulations of the election.”

“Powered by Project Alamo and data supplied by the RNC and Cambridge Analytica, his team is spending $70 million a month, much of it to cultivate a universe of millions of fervent Trump supporters, many of them reached through Facebook. By Election Day, the campaign expects to have captured 12 million to 14 million e-mail addresses and contact information (including credit card numbers) for 2.5 million small-dollar donors, who together will have ponied up almost $275 million.”

“Despite Trump’s claim that he doesn’t believe the polls, his San Antonio research team spends $100,000 a week on surveys (apart from polls commissioned out of Trump Tower) and has sophisticated models that run daily simulations of the election.”

Did market segmentation make a difference?

The Trump database has “… identified 13.5 million voters in 16 battleground states whom it considers persuadable”…. “Trump’s data scientists, including some from the London firm Cambridge Analytica who worked on the “Leave” side of the Brexit initiative, think they’ve identified a small, fluctuating group of people who are reluctant to admit their support for Trump and may be throwing off public polls.”

“The Trump campaign’s internal election simulator, the “Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory,” showed Trump with a 7.8 percent chance of winning. That’s because his own model had him trailing in most of the states that would decide the election, including the pivotal state of Florida—but only by a small margin. And in some states, such as Virginia, he was winning, even though no public poll agreed….Trump’s numbers were different, because his analysts, like Trump himself, were forecasting a fundamentally different electorate than other pollsters and almost all of the media: older, whiter, more rural, more populist. And much angrier at what they perceive to be an overclass of entitled elites. In the next three weeks, Trump channeled this anger on the stump, at times seeming almost unhinged ”

Even minority groups like the Police were targetted. The Boston Globe reported: “So far in 2016, a staggering 119 police officers have been killed in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. ….Donald Trump, love him or hate him, has been unwavering in his support of police officers…. For other cops, the silent majority who have watched Hillary Clinton embrace some members of the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement officers who were horrified when Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez was interrupted with rude shouts during a moment of silence for her fallen brethren at the DNC Convention, Trump’s win was vindication for those who are doing their jobs without engaging in racial profiling or excessive force….I have long predicted that the true Trump voter is not the angry white guy. It’s the civil servants, many of them combat veterans ”

Inside his campaign, Trump’s analysts became convinced that even their own models didn’t sufficiently account for the strength of these voters. “In the last week before the election, we undertook a big exercise to reweight all of our polling, because we thought that who [pollsters] were sampling from was the wrong idea of who the electorate was going to turn out to be this cycle,” says Matt Oczkowski, the head of product at London firm Cambridge Analytica and team leader on Trump’s campaign…..It’s what led Trump’s campaign to broaden the electoral map in the final two weeks and send the candidate into states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that no one else believed he could win”

DM news commented: “Marketers have been saying this for a long while now, but it’s usually in the context of using technology and strategies to properly target consumers. However, much of the population has segmented itself throughout the election; often to the degree that reality itself seems to bend on the whim of these increasingly polarized communities…. No matter what happens, the GOP will remain in disarray because Trump was able to segment off a core constituency of white working class workers without college degrees and turn them against the establishment party. Social media has calcified these tendencies…. Now that users have the power to choose what news and viewpoints they’re exposed to, reaching them on a personal level through information gained from data is the only real way to make an impact,” says Will Margiloff, CEO at the marketing firm IgnitionOne.”

How did the Trump campaign use the results of their number-crunching?

Firstly to address voters directly. Bloomberg quotes an un-named source: “if the New York Times and cable news mattered, he would be at 1 percent in the polls…. Trump supporters really don’t have a media outlet where they feel they’re represented — CNN has gone fully against Trump, MSNBC is assumed to be against Trump, and Fox is somewhere in the middle. What we found is that our people have organized incredibly well on the web. Reddit literally had to change their rules because it was becoming all Trump. Growing the digital footprint has really allowed us to take his message directly to the people.”

Secondly to decide where to appear and what messages to emphasise.

Thirdly, as well as deciding where to appear and what messages to emphasise, “Trump’s campaign has devised another strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to turn off Sanders supporters. The parade of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed or threatened by Hillary is meant to undermine her appeal to young women. And her 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” is the basis of a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls—particularly in Florida.”

An essay by David Faro says: “”Donald Trump’s victory … crisply illustrates some key behavioural concepts. The content and language Trump employed triggered a host of emotions such as fear and anger. His campaign also emphasised one of the great behavioural triggers – uncertainty.” Examples are:
– “the infamous graphic by the Trump campaign showing a bowl of Skittles sweets with the following message: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you – would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem”… shows “anchoring … When people need to make an estimate, they can be influenced by irrelevant initial “anchors” provided to them and not adjust their final estimates sufficiently. While the audience may know the chance of a terrorist attack is far lower than picking three “bad” skittles, their adjustment based on the message’s implied probability would tend to be insufficient….” It also shows “people overweight small probabilities, especially when they are presented with vivid imagery.”
– “the emphasis on losses. He talked about how America is economically losing out to China, Mexico and many others. He asked African-Americans what they had to lose (implying they were already in a “loss state”). He talked about people who have been hit by the financial crisis…. when people adopt a “loss frame” they tend to be more open to risk-taking.”
– “Gain and loss frames are relative to reference points – or expectations – which played several roles in the elections. The one we just noted was about how voters can be made to feel worse off relative to where they used to be, or where they believe they should be… [also]…One media trend was the narrative that Trump was setting low expectations before the debates. It was reported that he barely prepared for the debates and therefore underestimated the demands of staying focused. True or false, this takes into account the tendency to evaluate events in a narrow frame and relative to a reference….Trump was expected to do poorly and could be seen to “win” a debate in some people’s eyes simply for not being as bad as everyone anticipated.”

Who now owns Trump’s data? What are the implications for the future?

Coomenting on the election campaign, DM news said “Assuming proper care is taken in regards to segmentation, marketers can (and are) likely to take things even further using emerging or underutilized media like virtual assistants or SMS.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama says: “He has identified two very real problems in American politics: increasing inequality, which has hit the old working class very hard, and the capture of the political system by well-organized interest groups.” If it is the case that Mr Trump has found a more effective way to use data, social media and algorithms, then this may help other ‘well organised interest groups’ in the future.

As for the Trump database, commentators point out that this is Mr Trump’s personal property, since he paid for it. He used, but did not rely on, the Republican National Committee database. Bloomberg speculates that he may use it to launch a news channel. “Digital strategists typically value contact lists at $3 to $8 per e-mail, which would price Trump’s list of supporters anywhere from $36 million to $112 million. The Trump enterprise could benefit from it in any number of ways. The easiest move would be for Trump to partner with Bannon’s global Breitbart News Network, which already has a grip on the rising generation of populist Republicans. Along with a new venture, Trump would gain a platform from which to carry on his movement, built upon the millions of names housed in Project Alamo. “This is the pipe that makes the connection between Trump and the people,” says Bannon. “He has an apparatus that connects him to an ever-expanding audience of followers.””

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