What Did Cambridge Analytica Really Do for Trump’s Campaign?
News that Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix approached Wikileaks founder Julian Assange last year to exploit Hillary Clinton’s private emails has amplified questions about Cambridge’s role in President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Shortly after The Daily Beast reported Nix’s contact with Assange Wednesday, the Trump campaign’s executive director sought to downplay Cambridge’s role. Michael Glassner said in a statement that the Republican National Committee was the campaign’s primary source of voter data. “Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false,” Michael Glassner wrote. The statement did not respond to reporting in WIRED and elsewhere revealing a close relationship between the Trump campaign and Cambridge staffers. Cambridge did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
So, what gives? Such he-said-she-said battles are usually better left to Beltway happy hours. But as Congress and special investigator Robert Mueller turn their spotlights on Cambridge Analytica in their probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, it’s essential to get the facts straight about what the firm did—and didn’t—do for the Trump campaign.
Here’s what we know.
Cambridge worked both for the Trump campaign and a Trump-aligned Super PAC. In June 2016, Cambridge sent three staffers, led by chief product officer Matt Oczkowski, to the campaign’s San Antonio office. Oczkowski’s team eventually grew to 13 people, working under Trump digital director Brad Parscale and alongside his staff and outside consultants. According to Parscale, the Cambridge staff provided useful analysis of data about the American electorate. They did not, however, provide the raw data—things like demographic information, contact information, and data about how voters feel about different issues—on which that analysis was done.
That may sound like a small distinction, but it’s a crucial one. Ever since it burst onto the scene of American politics in 2015, Cambridge has trumpeted its massive data trove, boasting 5,000 data points on every American. Cambridge claims to have built extensive personality profiles on every American, which it uses for so-called “psychographic targeting,” based on people’s personality types. It is feared by some, including Hillary Clinton, for conducting a kind of psychological warfare against the American people and dismissed by others as snake oil. Both Parscale and Oczkowski have said repeatedly that the Trump campaign did not use psychographic targeting. Questions also have swirled about how Cambridge accumulated the data. Liberal voters in particular worried that their data had been harvested without their knowledge and used to elect Trump. But according to both Parscale and Oczkowski, the campaign didn’t use Cambridge’s trove of data, opting instead for the RNC’s data file.
“The RNC was the voter file of record for the campaign, but we were the intelligence on top of the voter file,” Oczkowski says. “Sometimes the sales pitch can be a bit inflated, and I think people can misconstrue that.”
Parscale describes the firm’s work this way: “As I’ve said multiple times over prior statements, Matt Oczkowski and his team created a daily tracker of polling, so that I could see how Trump was doing in key swing states. They provided that to me daily.” Parscale says Cambridge also helped the campaign with what he calls “persuasion online media buying. They also helped us identify potential donors. And they created a visualization tool that showed in each state which areas were most persuadable and what those voters care about.”
Cambridge Analytica was paid $5.9 million by the Trump campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings, $5 million of which went toward buying television ads, with the remainder going to pay Oczkowski and his team. But that wasn’t the only work Cambridge did for the campaign. Parscale says Cambridge’s head of digital, Molly Schweikert, managed an advertising budget of roughly $12 million on behalf of Parscale’s firm, Giles-Parscale. It’s a sizable, but still small slice of the $94 million Giles-Parscale was paid in total to purchase the campaign’s ads.
The Cambridge staff helped the campaign identify which voters in the RNC’s data file were most likely to be persuadable, meaning they were undecided but looked likely to swing toward Trump. They also created lists of voters who were most likely to become donors. In August 2016, a Trump aide told me Cambridge was critical to helping the campaign raise $80 million in the prior month, after a primary race that had been largely self-funded by Trump. This was the only period during which Oczkowski’s staff relied on Cambridge’s data, because the RNC was just beginning to share its data with the Trump team.
Cambridge went on to conduct hundreds of thousands of voter surveys for the Trump campaign to better understand the likely Trump voter and sent a full-time staffer to the New York headquarters, who could relay these findings to senior staff, including Parscale. Based on these surveys, RNC data, data the Trump team collected itself, and commercially available information from data brokers, Oczkowski’s team developed a heat map of the country to pinpoint where Trump should visit to maximize his impact on potentially persuadable voters.
Oczkowski views this as a collaborative effort between his team, the RNC, the campaign, and other vendors, including Deep Root Analytics, which helped the campaign target television ads. “At the end of the day, when candidates win elections, it’s a big team effort,” he says.
The RNC played a very important role in that team. Gary Coby, director of advertising at the RNC, managed the bulk of the campaign’s advertising purchases on Facebook. The campaign famously ran 175,000 variations of the same ad on Facebook the day of the third presidential debate in October 2016, a tactic Coby refers to as “A/B testing on steroids.” The RNC also ran the campaign’s field operations and worked with Parscale to plan get-out-the-vote advertising campaigns on television and online.
What’s also clear, however, is that the Trump campaign seems to have ample motivation to distance itself from Cambridge, a firm whose tactics have sometimes raised questions. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that shadowy billionaire and Trump supporter Robert Mercer is Cambridge’s main financial backer. Former Trump campaign manager and chief strategist to President Trump, Steve Bannon, also held a position on Cambridge’s board. The company itself is an offshoot of the British firm, SCL, which has roots in government and military operations.
Now, Assange’s confirmation that Cambridge’s CEO wanted to join forces against Clinton has renewed suspicions about the company’s business tactics, suspicions that the Trump team would very much like to avoid in the face of ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the election.
“I had absolutely no understanding any of this was going on, and I was surprised as everybody else when I saw the story” about Nix’s approach to Assange, Oczkowski says. During the campaign, he says his team was walled off from the rest of Cambridge, because the company was also working with a Trump Super PAC. Federal regulations prevent campaigns from coordinating with Super PACs. Of the 13 Cambridge staffers who worked in Trump’s San Antonio office, only four remain at the company.
Still, for some in Congress, the web of connections among Nix, the campaign, and now, Assange, seems too close for comfort. The House Intelligence Committee has acquired Cambridge staffers’ email records, which it is currently analyzing for clues of inappropriate contact with foreign actors trying to meddle in the election. Next week, representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google will testify before both the House and Senate intelligence committees and will likely face questions about their interactions with Trump’s digital team and members of Cambridge’s staff.
And investigators will, no doubt, continue to question members of team Trump about Nix’s communication with Assange. The panels will be seeking answers. But, as is often the case when it comes to Cambridge, each answer will likely only lead to more questions.