Trump's questioning of the value of data worries Republicans
Donald Trump says he plans to win the White House largely on the strength of his personality, not by leaning heavily on complex voter data operations that have become a behind-the-scenes staple in modern presidential campaigns.
Shortly after Trump explained his approach in an Associated Press interview — data is "overrated," he said — one of the presumptive Republican nominee's top advisers tried to clarify the remarks. Rick Wiley told AP the Trump campaign will indeed tap the Republican Party's massive cache of voter information.
The national Republican Party has spent massive sums of money to develop the database since President Barack Obama's election set a new standard for using data in national campaigns, from deciding where to send a candidate and how to spend advertising dollars to making sure supporters cast a ballot.
The back-and-forth in the Trump camp leaves Republicans and Democrats alike wondering just how committed the candidate actually is to what has become accepted wisdom among political professionals. Some Republicans worry that Trump risks ceding potential advantages to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton if he's not willing to invest the money required to keep updating the data, and then use it effectively.
"It's a big risk," said Chris Wilson, who ran an expansive data operation for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump's stiffest competition in the Republican primaries. Jeremy Bird, who worked for President Barack Obama's data-rich campaign, said: "Flying blind is nuts."
The use of data has evolved over the past several presidential campaigns into a shorthand for using information — starting with simple lists of potential voters, then mated with extensive details about their habits and beliefs — to guide a campaign toward its ultimate goal: the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
In his AP interview, Trump discounted the value of data: The "candidate is by far the most important thing," he said. He said he plans a "limited" use of data in his general election campaign and suggested Obama's victories — universally viewed by political professionals as groundbreaking in the way data steered the campaign to voters — are misunderstood.
"Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me," Trump said, explaining that he will continue to focus on his signature rallies, free television exposure and his personal social media accounts to win voters over.
Buzz Jacobs, who was on the losing end of Obama's success in 2008 as an aide to GOP nominee John McCain, said Trump oversimplifies the president's victories.
"We lost in large part because Obama's ability to use data was so much better than ours," Jacobs said.
According to South Carolina's Republican chairman, Matt Moore: "Elections to a great degree are won on ... that last 1 or 2 percent that shows up or stays home. That group on either edge turns out because of data and digital. That's a known fact."
Republicans and Democrats with experience running campaigns question why Trump would give up a chance to reinforce with data his ubiquitous presence on television and inarguable success with large-scale rallies — a platform of personality that Clinton has yet to match.
Bird, whose consulting firm now works for the Clinton campaign, said Trump is giving himself a false choice.
"At a big picture level, sure, Barack Obama got the votes — his bio, his policies, his ability to communicate," Bird said. "But we wanted to do everything we could to get him and get his message to the right people."
Jacobs, who worked this year for a former Trump rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said Trump is an outlier in being uninterested in data. The RNC and private groups, such as the billionaire conservative activist brothers Charles and David Koch, have spent hundreds of millions on their data programs since Obama's election.
"It would be silly to leave those on the sidelines," Jacobs said.
To be sure, Trump has not wholly abandoned data. His campaign spending disclosures show payments to multiple data firms, and the campaign maintains contact information collected when voters register for tickets to his rallies.
Wiley, a recent addition to the Trump team who previously worked for the national party, said he is "working with the RNC, putting together a state-of-the-art program." He predicted it would be able to match what "Obama was able to do in 2008."
But Trump's in-house data shop is thin, and the candidate has said that he does not give priority to the ground game. Trump's most significant loss of the primary season came in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, a victory for Cruz that was largely credited to the Texas senator's sophisticated campaign effort to turn out voters.
Wilson said he used the Cruz campaign's data to run nightly "models" leading up to the caucuses, which predicted turnout and outcomes and allowed the campaign to adjust its approach every day.
That means if Wiley and Trump's other campaign staffers are able to persuade him to pay attention to the data, they'll also need to persuade him to raise and spend the money to use it effectively in competitive states.
"He has to be convinced," South Carolina chairman Moore said. Then again, he said, "We've all been wrong about Trump for pretty much this entire campaign."