An opinion piece in today’s NY Times says President Trump’s reelection campaign has a serious digital advantage over Democrats heading into the 2020 election. The headline of the piece says it all: “Trump’s Digital Advantage Is Freaking Out Democratic Strategists.”
Republicans “have a big advantage this time,” Ben Nuckels, a Democratic media consultant said in a phone interview. “They not only have all the data from 2016 but they have been building this operation into a nonstop juggernaut.”
When you actually drill down to what it is that Democrats are worried about, it turns out to be campaign memes.
Steven Livingston, a professor of media and public affairs and director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, has been tracking this sub rosa electioneering in the current election cycle. He found that supporters of two candidates, Trump and Bernie Sanders, are the primary practitioners.
Here’s one aimed at Joe Biden which was posted by an anonymous Sanders supporter:
Because the people posting these memes are anonymous, there’s no way of knowing if they are grassroots supporters or part of a paid operation. The author of the piece frames this as the equivalent of dark money spending but in the digital space. But one of the Democratic groups seeking to turn the tide on social media says there is no dark magic to what the Trump campaign is doing:
There’s no digital dark magic being deployed by Brad Parscale and the Trump campaign. They just have near unlimited resources and are spending them wisely to reach their voters where they are — online, and especially on platforms like Facebook.
That’s very similar to what one of Facebook’s executives said about the Trump campaign’s 2016 efforts in a recently leaked memo:
Parscale and Trump just did unbelievable work. They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person. The use of custom audiences, video, ecommerce, and fresh creative remains the high water mark of digital ad campaigns in my opinion.
So this isn’t a dark art it’s just clever use of resources and technology to reach voters who might not otherwise be reached. That’s a point that Trump’s digital guru Brad Parscale made in a column for Townhall this week:
Out of more than 20,000 identified voters who came to a recent Trump rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 57.9 percent did not have a history of voting for Republicans. Remarkably, 4,413 attendees didn’t even vote in the last election — a clear indication that President Trump is energizing Americans who were previously not engaged in politics…
Nearly 22 percent of identified supporters at President Trump’s rally in Toledo, Ohio, were Democrats, and another 21 percent were independents. An astounding 15 percent of identified voters who saw the president speak in Battle Creek, Michigan, has not voted in any of the last four elections. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, just over 20 percent of identified voters at the rally were Democrats, and 18 percent were non-white.
Obviously it’s a powerful advantage to have data like that and to be able to attempt to target the specific Democrats or non-voters who are potentially receptive to becoming Trump voters.
An anonymous Democratic strategist working to even the odds in the coming election says there’s no doubt the GOP has better data. He believes the only reason Democrats have a chance at defeating Trump is because he is a flawed candidate: “There’s no question that as a technical matter, the Republicans and the Kochs are spending much more and have better data than Democrats/progressives. But they also have a much more difficult product to sell: Trump.”
How big is Trump’s digital advantage? “Big enough to enable him to win the popular vote? Almost certainly not. Big enough to win Wisconsin? Frighteningly so,” the strategist tells the NY Times.
So if you were wondering why Hillary Clinton and George Soros are suddenly spreading conspiracy theories about Facebook handing the election to Trump, this is why they are doing it. Trump has a digital advantage and Democrats want Facebook to help neutralize it.
Author: John Sexton