Trump's aversion to data puts RNC on the hot seat

Trump's aversion to data puts RNC on the hot seat
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE’s apparent uninterest in using data and analytics in his campaign is putting pressure on the Republican National Committee (RNC), which could be forced to fill the gaps in the general election.

The RNC says it is ready for the challenge, having spent millions of dollars after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat to build a data and digital infrastructure able to compete with Democrats.

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“We’re building an operation that’s scalable and workable for all candidates,” said Katie Walsh, the RNC’s chief of staff.

But some question whether it will be possible for the RNC to completely pick up the slack if Trump decides to outsource the work of building a high-tech campaign apparatus, which performs countless tests to optimize a campaign's resources. 

"There’s no way to do that through a party structure,” said Chris Wilson, who directed data operations for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz Eye-popping number of Dems: I can beat Trump 'SleepyCreepy Joe' and 'Crazy Bernie': Trump seeks to define 2020 Dems with insults The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate MORE’s (Texas) Republican primary campaign.

In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Trump called data “overrated” and said he plans to rely mostly on rallies and media interviews to propel his campaign. He cited President Obama as an example, even though his 2012 campaign was famously obsessed with data and spent millions using it.

"Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me," Trump said 

Data and analytics are increasingly central to the way modern political campaigns are run. Specialists parse streams of information to help make decisions about every aspect of a campaign, from the deployment of advertising dollars to the use of volunteers for voter canvassing.

“Yes, it’s overrated, and yes, the election will not be decided by the candidate or the party that has the more sophisticated data operation," said Sasha Issenberg, a reporter who wrote a 2012 book, "The Victory Lab," about the rise of data-centric campaigns. "But at this point, data is embedded within nearly every department of a campaign."

"And the goal is, if you are out making lots of tactical decisions and some big strategic decisions, to have as much information possible about the electorate and the state of the race, such that as a candidate and down to the sort of the lowliest field staffers, you’re making decisions that are as informed as possible.”

The two Democrats vying to take on Trump in the general election, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren policy ideas show signs of paying off Biden at campaign kickoff event: I don't have to be 'angry' to win Top Dem: Trump helps GOP erase enthusiasm gap; Ohio a big problem MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersHere are the potential candidates still eyeing 2020 bids Sanders unveils education plan that would ban for-profit charter schools Warren policy ideas show signs of paying off MORE, have already invested heavily in their data operations, following the lead that Obama set during his two campaigns.

Clinton has an in-house data team and is contracting out to a startup funded in part by Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. Sanders, meanwhile, has used analytics to build a small-dollar fundraising juggernaut.

The RNC says it can close the gap and intends to do highly granular modeling for Trump. The data issue is important enough that Trump and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus have spoken personally about it, according to a Republican official.

Republicans have spent $100 million since Romney’s defeat beefing up their data and digital forces. The party now employs more than 30 people who work on data projects and contract with several vendors for additional services.

The RNC is working with Trump’s campaign, Walsh said, to integrate the data it has collected with the party’s systems.

“Unlike Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump did not have to build a data operation from scratch and has already begun syncing up with the RNC who has spent decades investing in and building the best data and analytics in the business,” wrote Hope Hicks, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, in an email.

“Not only is this an efficient use of time and resources, the campaign is confident this will produce the best results.” 

It remains early in the campaign, which means Trump could change his tune about data being “overrated.”

Still, Republican campaign strategists note that Trump has defied the rules of campaigning so far and say his singular brand of personal charisma and media dominance could be enough to win the White House.

“If he’s not going to buy TV ads or have volunteers knock on doors, he probably doesn’t need the same data operation that an Obama had or that Hillary is developing,” Issenberg said.

But some worry that having a Republican presidential candidate without a robust in-house data operation will hurt candidates further down the ballot, for whom low turnout among the party faithful can be fatal.

Wilson said Trump’s approach “is going to hurt candidates for Senate in swing states: the Kelly Ayottes, the [Rob] Portmans, the [Ron] Johnsons.” 

“I think it causes them to have to invest far more than they would have, because right now there won’t be a candidate at the top of the ticket turning out the important base votes.”

But Walsh argued that the party is uniquely positioned to help its down-ballot candidates. Clinton, she said, is building a data machine only for herself, while Republicans are building one to help all of their candidates. She said the party has been working closely with its down-ballot candidates to get them ready for the election. 

“We built what we would like to consider a much broader platform [and] data infrastructure that is able to specialize around candidates,” Walsh said.

Issenberg noted that technology has become more accessible for non-presidential campaigns than it has been in previous cycles.

“This all takes money and political will, but there’s nothing in theory that the Trump campaign can do that the Portman campaign can’t do,” he said. “It’s entirely possible that it just makes more sense for those campaigns, working with the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] or in the case of House races the [National Republican Congressional Committee], to take the lead.” 

More broadly, there’s a question of what effect, if any, Trump’s disavowal of data will have on data operatives on the right who are seeking to innovate. 

“The RNC has to serve a lot of different masters,” said Luke Thompson, who ran the data operations for the super-PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Republican primary run. 

“It’s the combination of sort of intensity and resources and unity of purpose that a presidential campaign provides that makes innovation possible. So, sure, if we sit out a quadrennial cycle of that, it’s going to have bad effects.”

But there are also a large number of Republican operatives, now free of presidential campaigns, who are involved in 2016 races, even if they aren’t working for Trump.

“The culture of data is probably more permeated throughout [the] Republican campaign world than is ever has been before,” said Mark Stephenson, who was the lead data operative for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s GOP primary campaign.