Trump’s Digital Advantage Is Freaking Out Democratic Strategists

Left and right agree on one point. The president’s re-election campaign is way ahead online.

In a blog post published in November, a year before the 2020 election, Brian Burch, the president of, a socially conservative advocacy group, announced that in Wisconsin alone his organization had identified 199,241 Catholics “who’ve been to church at least 3 times in the last 90 days.”

Nearly half of these religiously observant parishioners, Burch wrote, “91,373 mass-attending Catholics — are not even registered to vote!” is looking for potential Trump voters within this large, untapped reservoir — Republican-leaning white Catholics who could bolster Trump’s numbers in a battleground state.

Burch, whose organization opposes abortion and gay marriage, made his plans clear:

We are already building the largest Catholic voter mobilization program ever. And no, that’s not an exaggeration. Our plan spans at least 7 states (and growing), and includes millions of Catholic voters.

How did Catholic Vote come up with these particular church attendance numbers for 199,241 Catholics? With geofencing, a technology that creates a virtual geographic boundary, enabling software to trigger a response when a cellphone enters or leaves a particular area — a church, for example, or a stadium, a school or an entire town.

Geofencing is just one of the new tools of digital campaigning, a largely unregulated field of political combat in which voters have little or no idea of how they are being manipulated, in which traditional disclosure requirements are inoperative and key actors are anonymous. It is a weapon of choice. Once an area is geofenced, commercial data companies can acquire the mobile phone ID numbers of those within the boundary.

This is how the National Catholic Reporter described the process in an article earlier this month:

Politically minded geofencers capture data from the cellphones of churchgoers, and then purchase ads targeting those devices. That data can be matched against other easily obtained databases, including voter profiles, which give marketers identifying information such as names, addresses and voter registration status. Such information can be a gold mine.

Burch described what initiated in the 2018 election. “We created ad campaigns targeted to mobile devices that have been inside of Catholic churches,” Burch explained. What’s more,

We told Catholics in Missouri the truth about then-Senator Claire McCaskill — that she was pro-abortion, was unwilling to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor, and opposed Catholic judicial nominees because of their religious beliefs. And she lost.

If you attend an evangelical or a Catholic Church, a women’s rights march or a political rally of any kind, especially in a seriously contested state, the odds are that your cellphone ID number, home address, partisan affiliation and the identifying information of the people around you will be provided by geofencing marketers to campaigns, lobbyists and other interest groups.

With increasing speed, digital technology is transforming politics, constantly providing novel ways to target specific individuals, to get the unregistered registered, to turn out marginal voters, to persuade the undecided and to suppress support for the opposition.

Democrats and Republicans agree that the Trump campaign is far ahead of the Democratic Party in the use of this technology, capitalizing on its substantial investment during the 2016 election and benefiting from an uninterrupted high-tech drive since then.

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.”

The new technology, Nuckels continued, allows campaigns to “deliver a broader narrative over the top” on television and other media, while “underneath in digital you are delivering ads that are tailored to those voters that you need to influence and persuade the most.”

The explosion of digital technology has created the opportunity for political operatives to run what amount to dark campaigns, conducted below the radar of both voter awareness and government oversight.

In some cases, the technology is very simple: the anonymous transmission of negative images of candidates by individuals to Facebook groups. This activity is neither reported to the Federal Election Commission nor linked to official campaigns.

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.

The Washington Post and The New York Times have both reported on the activities of Sanders supporters, but, Livingston noted in an email, “Our evidence suggests that Trump supporters use automated promotion or cross posting four times as much as Sanders supporters.”

Livingston described “these digital shadow campaigns” as “analogous to and perhaps an actual digital manifestation of ‘dark money’ influence campaigns.” In addition, he continued,

Overwhelmingly, these pages and groups do not have ownership declarations or Facebook verifications. We simply do not know what other digital properties might be operated by common sources with the groups. There is money being spent but we don’t know the sources. It is unaccountable spending.

Livingston provided some of the kind of negative messages and images promoted by anonymous pro-Trump activists. Here is one:

And here is one made by a Sanders enthusiast:

Experts in the explosively growing field of political digital technologies have developed an innovative terminology to describe what they do — a lexicon that is virtually incomprehensible to ordinary voters. This language provides an inkling of the extraordinarily arcane universe politics has entered:

geofencingmass personalizationdark patternsidentity resolution technologiesdynamic prospectinggeotargeting strategieslocation analyticsgeo-behavioural segmentpolitical data cloudautomatic content recognitiondynamic creative optimization.

Geofencing and other emerging digital technologies derive from microtargeting marketing initiatives that use consumer and other demographic data to identify the interests of specific voters or very small groups of like-minded individuals to influence their thoughts or actions. Microtargeting first had a significant impact on American politics in state level campaign work by Alec Gage, a Republican, and his firm TargetPoint in 2002.

Now, political operatives are exploiting commercial techniques to correlate microtargeting data with the identification numbers of cellphones. This allows campaigns to mobilize, persuade and turn out — or to suppress turnout among — key voters.

In 2016, Trump spent far more than Hillary Clinton on digital campaigning, and since then his campaign, under the direction of Brad Parscale, has continued far outpace its Democratic rivals.

In a paper published this month, “The digital commercialization of US politics — 2020 and beyond,” Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University, and Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, described the differences between the 2016 Trump and Clinton campaigns:

Whereas 31 percent of Donald Trump’s total campaign expenditures were for digital media, only 6 percent of Hillary Clinton’s expenditures were for digital. Moreover, whereas almost 50 percent of Mr. Trump’s media expenditures were for digital, only 8 percent of Secretary Clinton’s media expenditures were for digital. So although Secretary Clinton outspent Mr. Trump by $75 million on media, it is quite possible that Mr. Trump’s heavy reliance on digital media allowed for a more efficient and targeted ad campaign that escaped the eye.

Parscale, who is now managing Trump’s 2020 campaign, claimed in a 2018 tweet that the Trump campaign tech operation was “100 times to 200 times” more effective than the Clinton campaign’s, adding “@realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for Facebook.”

On Monday, Parscale boasted on the conservative website Townhall that Trump rallies are providing a gold mine of data for the 2020 election:

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.

Similar findings are coming out of other rallies, according to Parscale:

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 nonwhite.

In the current election cycle, Montgomery and Chester write,

further growth and expansion of the big data digital marketplace is reshaping electoral politics in the US, introducing both candidate and issue campaigns to a system of sophisticated software applications and data-targeting tools that are rooted in the goals, values, and strategies for influencing consumer behaviors.

Technologies used for “identity resolution,” they write,

enable marketers — and political groups — to target and ‘reach real people’ with greater precision than ever before. Marketers are helping perfect a system that leverages and integrates, increasingly in real-time, consumer profile data with online behaviors to capture more granular profiles of individuals, including where they go, and what they do.

The authors go on to warn that “all of these developments are taking place, moreover, within a regulatory structure that is weak and largely ineffectual.”

Tara McGowan, executive director of the recently created pro-Democratic group Acronym, which plans to spend $75 million on digital and other media, replied to my questions by email:

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.

The greatest advantage, McGowan continued, that

the Trump campaign has over Democrats heading into 2020 is time. Democrats may not settle on a general election nominee until late spring or summer. That gives the Trump campaign much more time to talk to voters and define the Democrats in places where it counts.

In addition to ACRONYM, pro-Democratic groups like

and a host of others are working together, prepared to spend more than $300 million to counter the Trump efforts.

In addition, the campaigns of Mike Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer are all spending huge amounts of money on digital strategies focused on Facebook, Google and other social media.

Still, there are concerns that much of the Democratic spending will have limited value in the general election, insofar as it is going toward states that will not be 2020 battlegrounds, including, for example, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont on Tuesday March 3, better known as Super Tuesday. In addition, whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will not be able to share his or her data with the independent pro-Democratic groups, according to federal regulation.

AppleGoogle and most other major internet players have adopted privacy policies that would appear to significantly constrain the ability of data management firms to obtain detailed household information, consumer spending and partisan leanings of smartphone users. But it turns out that there are ways to get around the rules.

Serge Egelman, a research director at Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and a co-author of the paper “50 Ways to Leak Your Data: An Exploration of Apps’ Circumvention of the Android Permissions System,” replied to my email:

Most users are likely of the impression that apps will only collect the personal data that they’re asked about in the ‘permissions dialogues’ that they encounter (i.e., pop-up notifications asking if it’s O.K. for an app to access certain data, such as location, address book contacts, photos, etc.).

These unsuspecting users were mistaken.

We discovered that there are “back channels” through which the same data is available without having to present the user with a permission dialogue.

What does this mean for politics?

We know that many of these entities are data brokers and analytics companies that are in the business of using this type of data to profile mobile device users, and then selling these profiles to various entities, including political campaigns.

The data

generally provides information about individual users’ day-to-day activities and preferences:

  • Where they shop;
  • What they do for fun;
  • What other apps they use, for how long, and
  • what they do in those apps;
  • Where they live;
  • Where they work;
  • With whom they associate.

This data, he added, enables campaigns to list “individual attendees at political rallies;” to identify “political leanings based on online and offline preferences (where you live, work, shop, play, etc.); and to segment “ads based on inferred psychographic traits (i.e., exactly what Cambridge Analytica did, but instead of personalized political ads on Facebook, users get personalized ads in potentially all of their mobile apps).”

Egelman noted that “from the user’s perspective, there’s literally no way of preventing it from happening or even knowing when it’s happening.” The expectation “that app users should be able to figure this all out and manage it is absolutely ludicrous.”

A pro-Democratic strategist who is helping coordinate the independent effort to defeat Trump — and who insisted on anonymity to protect his job — described what he believes is the current state of play in the role of digital technology in larger, overall strategy:

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.

If Marco Rubio were president in this thriving economy, he continued, “2020 would not be a competitive election, and the Democrats might not have claimed the House in 2018.”

“Crucially,” the strategist said,

Trump has two relevant advantages deriving from the asymmetry between the flow of Republican and Democratic information. First, when Trump says something, Fox repeats it. When a Democrat says something, The New York Times and the rest of the MSM knock it down if it’s false or debatable.

In other words, a huge swath of Trump-supportive media does not perform fact-based journalism.

In addition, the Democratic strategist said,

Trump benefits enormously because of the Right’s aligned network of media properties (i.e., Sinclair), Facebook properties, YouTube influencers and bots/sock puppets. This kind of amplification network barely exists for Democrats/progressives.

While studies show that “digital ads have at most a slight persuasive effect,” he noted,

the real goal of paid advertising is for the content to become organic social media. For example, a Trump ad saying that he’s brought back manufacturing jobs would persuade almost no one. But, when local news or your neighbor starts repeating that, it becomes more credible and persuasive. That’s what they’re after. To sum up, their content is advantaged because it reaches their target audiences, without friction, from the media that audience trusts, and is quickly and reliably repeated by other voices they trust in their world.

What’s the bottom line?

Finally, there’s the question of the size of the value of Trump’s data/digital advantage. Big enough to enable him to win the popular vote? Almost certainly not. Big enough to win Wisconsin? Frighteningly so.