Looking back, it was a remarkable story, perhaps the most remarkable of the entire presidential campaign. As much as anything before or after, it helps us understand how we elected Donald Trump president.
“Inside the Trump bunker with days to go,” read the headline on the BloombergBusinessWeek story Oct. 27.
“Almost every public and private metric suggests Trump is headed for a loss, possibly an epic one,” the reporters wrote. “His frustrated demeanor on the campaign trail suggests he knows it. Yet even as he nears the end of his presidential run, his team is sowing the seeds of a new enterprise with a direct marketing effort that they insist could still shock the world on Election Day.”
After reading the story, Blake Hounshell, the editorial director digital for Politico, quickly tweeted this:
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) October 27, 2016
Hounshell wasn’t exaggerating. In this campaign, Trump’s “direct marketing effort” weaponized the social media ecosystem.
Using sophisticated data modeling and pinpoint-targeted Facebook ads, the campaign got its messages precisely in front of voters it needed to sway.
At Muckety, we explored some of this terrain in a story and map that traced the close connections between a major Trump donor, Robert Mercer; a big data research firm, Cambridge Analytica; and Bannon, the Trump campaign’s CEO and now chief strategist for the Trump White House.
What made the BusinessWeek article so prescient was an explanation of how the campaign, in addition to persuading people to vote for Trump, was also trying to persuade people in key demographics not to vote for Hillary Clinton, shrinking her support.
The article quoted an unnamed senior campaign official saying a “major voter suppression effort” was aimed at “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”
As described, this was not voter suppression in the more conventional sense of polling place intimidation or restrictive voter registration procedures. It was something new, backed by big data.
“We know because we’ve modeled this,” the unnamed official told the BusinessWeek reporters. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
One targeted Facebook ad resurrected Clinton’s 20-year-old comment about “super predators.”
At the time the BusinessWeek story ran, the voter suppression angle was picked up by other media, and strongly denied by the Trump campaign.
Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, said in an interview on MSNBC that he hadn’t read the article but the suppression language was “offensive” to him and didn’t represent the campaign.
“Donald Trump and I want every American who has the opportunity to vote in this election, and that’s our message,” Pence said.
In an Oct. 27 New York Times article, a Trump spokesman echoed the same sentiment about voter suppression. “Whoever described it as such either a) doesn’t know what they’re talking about or b) just isn’t dialed in to our campaign and what Mr. Trump is trying to accomplish,” the spokesman said.
In an interview with MSNBC after the election, Brad Parscale, who led the Trump campaign’s digital effort, was also asked about voter suppression.
“There was no voter suppression ever coming out of our campaign. That was a comment I didn’t make,” Parscale said.
MSNBC followed up. Was there voter depression?
“When you identify individual voters, these are the voters we need, you create content that focuses on what they want to see,” Parscale explained. “You know, and in our case, we needed to show Mr. Trump was a change candidate. He was about urban renewal. He was about jobs and trade. When we do that, we could start to move those people over into our win column.”
Suppression. Depression. Targeted campaign messages. Whatever you call it, the tactic worked.
Jeffrey Toobin, writing about more conventional voter suppression in the New Yorker (Dec. 12 edition), has a great example from Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, which has a large African-American population.
Toobin says that there were 60,000 fewer votes cast there in 2016 than in 2012. “To put it another way,” Toobin writes, “Clinton received forty-three thousand fewer votes in that county than Barack Obama did — a number that is nearly double Trump’s margin of victory in all of Wisconsin.”
The BusinessWeek story was written by Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg, both veteran journalists with strong backgrounds in their subject. In October 2015, Green wrote what has become the definitive profile of Bannon, headlined: “This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.”
After Bannon’s appointment to his senior role in the Trump White House, Green made the rounds on TV talking about him.
In November 2015, Issenberg, author of a 2012 book on data mining and campaigns, went to England to profile Cambridge Analytica, then working for Ted Cruz’s campaign. Analytica promised “a transformative new approach to identifying voters,” said the subhead on Issenberg’s story. “Does it promise too much?”
That question now can be definitively answered: No.
Some may quibble with the term “voter suppression,” but Green and Issenberg knew their material, the questions to ask and what they were being told when they were in the bunker with the Trump campaign for their story near the end of the campaign.
Their analysis story two days after the election, explaining how Trump won, is headlined: “Trump’s Data Team Saw a Different America — and They Were Right.” In that story, Green and Issenberg don’t use the term “voter suppression.”
They say Trump’s data scientists detected a move toward him even before James Comey, the FBI director, announced re-opening the Clinton email investigation. His announcement, a day after the in-the-bunker story ran, accelerated the voters’ move.
And they quote Bannon:
“Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message. From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”
So, while we’re still waiting for the full story of The Making of the President 2016 to be told - and it may eventually include troll shops actively boosting fake news through fake social media accounts as well as Russian state-backed actors - we can nominate two real journalists to write the book: Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg.