According to the Laboratory for Social Machines from MIT Media Lab, Donald Trump was the most influential force on the 2016 election.
More than any television news stations, newspapers, or other public bodies. Donald J Trump, as an individual, was the most powerful influencer on the nation.
This influence was driven by his huge social media following. In March 2016 he had 6.8m Twitter followers, 6.3m Facebook likes, and 4.1m views on his YouTube channel. Now, he has over 22m Twitter followers.
But his eventual success lay deeper than just finely crafted tweet storms.
In 2016, with the election of Donald Trump and the successful Brexit vote, major campaigns had been won on emerging political battlegrounds.
Obama’s ‘08 campaign and re-election were fought heavily on social media, and Trump has mirrored some of that success. But his campaign wasn’t solely a media triumph.
Much has been written about what Trump has said and done with little focus on his team behind the scenes. Recognizing the work of his campaign team helps us see the increasing importance of tech in the shaping of our political landscape.
These are the alternative facts of the US election. How an understanding of technological change put Trump in the White House.
Utilizing tech is not a silver bullet
It is important to recognize that these campaigns were not won by innovative practices alone. The two examples given above both represent a change from the norm in an election where the opposing side symbolized a continuation of a status quo.
Donald Trump may have won the presidency, but he didn’t single-handedly win a majority in the US Senate or the House of Representatives. The candidates standing in those elections shouldn’t be discounted, and possibly the overwhelming republican victory across all three branches shows us something about the political will of the nation.
Plus, votes were close, with Trump relying on the Electoral College to confirm his victory.
And before we get carried away with the power of tech-driven campaigns, they haven’t all won. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic primaries seemed one of the closest situations we’ve seen to a political startup. Crowdfunding its way from obscurity against a guaranteed victor, Sanders’ campaign created phonebanking platforms and organizing channels rapidly to disseminate his message and put up a real fight against the Party’s candidate. It also used other communication startups like Hustle to try to connect his young tech-literate followers and lauded a massive Facebook presence over his competitor, Clinton.
However, despite his tech-driven campaign startup, Sanders was unsuccessful in achieving victory.
Trump’s Media Strategy has Been Considered Key
The Trump campaign notably took a savvy media approach.
It appears, at first, difficult to say how much within Trump’s media strategy was by design and how much was happenstance. Joel Simon writing for the Columbia Journalism Review in March 2016 foreshadowed Trump’s media approach in the run in to the election, concluding:
“The media relationship is defined by power, and as the power of traditional media ebbs, the relationship between journalists and those they cover is redefined. Trump’s media strategy is confirmation that the most effective way to get media attention today is to engage in shocking behavior, use social media to control your message, and rely on traditional media to amplify your voice. As long as that strategy works, it will be used.”
Simon’s core argument was that Trump understood the 24-hour news cycle we live in and exploited both it and online news media’s need for clicks. Trump was able to place himself in the middle of the spotlight whenever he chose by saying something provocative.
Simon goes on to suggest that this outspoken and brazen expression of opinions helped not just awaken his supporters, but make his supporters more aware of each other. In turn, this spurred the creation of online communities committed to Trump’s cause. This phenomenon was dubbed the Meme Wars by many of his adherents. Comical as it may be, the groundswell of collective political action online added extra high energy to the Trump campaign and may well have contributed to his overall victory.
The Google Trends analysis below shows the online dominance of Trump vs Clinton over the course of 2016 in terms of prominence in conversations.
This media strategy of Trump’s may have been understood early by those within the industry, but they still followed along with others in providing Trump with the coverage he aimed for. Jim Rutenberg, writing for the New York Times on January 12th 2017, identifies:
“The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.”
The theme identified by Simon was that traditional media outlets were losing relevance against the power of social media for information dissemination, and Trump exploited these technological shifts.
However, it seems this conclusion shouldn’t be seen separately from the rise of new independent media organizations – most notably Breitbart, whose former chairman Steve Bannon now sits as chief strategist and Senior Counsellor to President Trump.
These organizations allowed for Trump to gain positive media coverage even when the mainstream wouldn’t give it to him. These opposing-view articles could then be trotted out to counter the coverage given by established media outlets.
Trump’s media strategy was highly successful even if it could be argued it wasn’t core to his victory. Yet, not only was it intelligent strategy, it was also founded on a smart and slick technological infrastructure. There was more method behind the madness than self-critical journalists are giving him credit for.
How Trump employed software and its practices
Steven Bertoni, writing for Forbes, gives us a sneak peek into the inner workings of the Trump campaign and what principles its success had been based on.
Trump’s original campaign strategy, carried out alongside Corey Lewandowski, was more lean than it was lean startup. There were hardly any staffers, very little infrastructure, and an intention of seeing how far they could get without spending too much money.
Grab headlines and hold rallies. That’s what it boiled down to.
Then, an unlikely hero stepped up and began to oversee a change in focus and direction. It wasn’t Steve Bannon nor Paypal mafioso Peter Thiel. It was Ivanka Trump’s husband Jared Kushner.
Kushner was a co-investor in online marketplace Cadre with Peter Thiel and Alibaba’s Jack Ma, while his brother is a venture capitalist who co-founded the unicorn startup Oscar Health. From this base, Kushner took over Trump’s social media strategy and brought Silicon Valley to Trump Tower.
Peter Thiel remarked:
“It’s hard to overstate and hard to summarize Jared’s role in the campaign. If Trump was the CEO, Jared was effectively the chief operating officer.”
While Google’s Eric Schmidt, who was helping the Clinton campaign, described:
“Jared Kushner is the biggest surprise of the 2016 election. Best I can tell, he actually ran the campaign and did it with essentially no resources.”
Kushner reportedly leveraged his Silicon Valley connections and asked for the best digital marketers in the world. In an early test, he used Facebook’s micro-targeting and a stash of Trump merchandise to test the boundaries of money-making. The campaign went from making $8,000 a day to $80,000.
Using this initial test as a base, Kushner spent $160,000 promoting a low-tech straight to camera video of Trump, which probably cost almost nothing to make.
The video received 74 million views.
Once the Republican nomination was nailed on, Kushner took over the campaign. His tests had been done and their concepts proven. Now he needed to find a way to scale these tests up to a nationally successful level.
The campaign set up a 100 person office in San Antonio while keeping a low key presence.
This office was the data center.
“We played Moneyball, asking ourselves which states will get the best ROI for the electoral vote. I asked, how can we get Trump’s message to that consumer for the least amount of cost?” – Kushner
This focus on customer acquisition cost and the lean principles Kushner instilled into the team drove the campaign forward. Every cent would be spent wisely; not just avoiding wastage, but focusing spending via strategy.
“FEC filings through mid-October indicate the Trump campaign spent roughly half as much as the Clinton campaign did.”
Kushner’s approach resembled the disruption of a traditional industry for which Silicon Valley has become synonymous with. They used outsourcing to data partners like Cambridge Analytica to map key policy issues by geography, and Deep Root to only run TV adverts if the demographic for a particular show could be susceptible to a certain policy proposal.
They also employed unusual techniques. It was noted that they would employ multiple digital marketing firms and have them compete against each other side by side to cut costs and inefficiencies – creating optimum processes.
Schmidt sums up the Kushner lead campaign:
“Jared understood the online world in a way the traditional media folks didn’t. He managed to assemble a presidential campaign on a shoestring using new technology and won. That’s a big deal. Remember all those articles about how they had no money, no people, organizational structure? Well, they won, and Jared ran it.”
Tech in political processes on both sides
Of course, it wasn’t just the Trump campaign who recognized the importance of big data and strong organizational processes.
Wired, in June 2016, reported on how Dan Wagner and David Shor were going to push the most tech-driven analytics program politics has ever seen behind Hillary Clinton. The two have been involved in political analysis for years; currently working under the banner of Civis Analytics.
They worked together primarily in Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. In his 2012 run, Obama established a hidden-away data center of his own, referred to as the Cave. The Cave was physically separated from the rest of the campaign team and served to deliver a secretive daily “Golden Report” to the head honchos.
This Golden Report, prepared by Wagner and co (pictured above), was the result of 62,000 simulations of the election outcome based on the data they were gathering. This informed the strategic decision-making of the campaign. The prime example of which was when public polling was showing Obama had dropped 10 points in Michigan. This opened the state up for Romney to be competitive and the Republicans flooded it with people and cash. The Obama team didn’t react. The reports from the Cave showed Michigan was not in crisis and the public polls were wrong.
The amount of money saved by not panicking in reaction to those polls was $20m, paying for the entire cost of the data center.
In Wagners words, Civis Analytics can provide that same knowledge of voter sentiment:
“We offer an incredibly scarce resource: How do people really feel about the country?”
Civis weren’t alone in wanting to use technology to help spur a Clinton victory. Eric Schmidt of Google, who coincidentally is the sole investor in Civis, had been assisting Clinton separately to establish a digital hub from which to manage her technology.
Adam Pasick and Tim Fernholz, writing for Quartz, describe the shadowy Groundwork project backed by Schmidt, which would supposedly give Clinton the edge. It was described as bridging the gap between the technology and the politics, allowing politicians and their staffers to understand what’s going on within their campaigns.
It is no longer so shadowy after the election. TheGroundwork.com appears to be a political SaaS product which combines analytics, data management, task management, and other such duties. Simple to use and geared for “powering the next generation of social impact websites and apps.”
Trump and Kushner’s processes won the day
I’m not qualified to say for certain why one side won and one side didn’t, but there are a few trends we can pull out.
- Trump’s media strategy was based around his personal social media influence and brand, his populist message and its ability to motivate highly vocal online supporters, and his omnipresence in traditional media coverage.
- Kushner’s data-driven warehouse was twice the size of Obama’s 2012 Cave, with approximately 100 employees against 54. The reported activities of Kushner’s data center are also more aggressive and competitive in nature.
We don’t know the figures for Clinton’s operation exactly, but if winning with data was her key strategy it looks as if she didn’t hit it hard enough.
It’s impossible to make a definitive statement on what caused the outcome in a world where we can’t control for the Podesta emails case being reopened 11 days before the vote.
However, if Eric Schmidt had been backing the Clinton campaign with both know-how and capital and yet came out to say that Kushner’s work was the decisive key, then who am I to argue?
Kushner not only utilized lean practices and modern technologies, he optimized the campaign’s processes to the point where they won the 2016 US election spending half the opposition’s outlay. Yuge.
If this trend for typical startup practices continues then it might not be long until we see a child of Silicon Valley run for office. The rumors of Mark Zuckerberg 2020 begun in August 2016 when he created a new class of non-voting shares for Facebook. These could allow him to run for office without having to give up control over his business.
In 2017, Zuckerberg allegedly aims to visit all 50 states and talk to community leaders about the issues they’re facing. This has set the rumor mill running again.
PaddyPower betting currently has Kanye West on shorter odds than Zuckerberg to win the presidency in 2020 (100/1 v 125/1), but if the Democrats want to challenge it seems clear that the role of data, lean principles, and optimized processes would be crucial for success against another Kushner led campaign.
Who are you expecting to see run in 2020? Another politician or a candidate from outside Washington?