Three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, a data company owned by one of his wealthiest supporters began cashing in.
The company, Cambridge Analytica, inked a deal with the nation’s leading conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, for the purpose of hitting up Trump voters for donations.
The marrying of the two institutions was made easier by a shared principle. Cambridge Analytica is run by Rebekah Mercer, who with her father provided major cash infusions for Trump and groups supporting him during the 2016 campaign. Mercer is also a board member of the Heritage Foundation, the nation’s flagship conservative think tank.
But the alliance also reflects a new reality within the broader conservative universe. Trump didn’t just bring an idiosyncratic set of political priorities with him to Washington. He brought a massive amount of first-time voters and supporters as well—individuals that establishment institutions like Heritage would want to mine for dollars.
Heritage had used Cambridge Analytica’s services before. From late 2015 through June 2016, the firm provided “statistical models to identify new donors” and developed digital ads for the group, according to documents Heritage filed with New York regulators.
But on November 28, 2016, it hammered out a new agreement to use the massive amounts of data that the firm had collected on Trump supporters in the run-up to the election, with an explicit eye towards raising money from the president’s base.
“Cambridge Analytica will provide data and data analytics to inform a data-driven fundraising project for [Heritage] among the Trump supporter audience to enable Client to expand its donor base in light of the November 2016 election results,” reads the business agreement filed by Cambridge Analytica with the government of North Carolina this year. “Cambridge Analytica will leverage proprietary predictive models for a) Trump supporters and b) political issues prioritization c) evangelical and conservative audiences to establish a target audience for Client's fundraising efforts.”
Heritage already has a formidable fundraising operation, having brought in nearly $80 million in donations last year. The new pool of Trump voters, and the shifting center of gravity on the political right, has presented it with challenges and opportunities.
As a candidate, and more recently as a president, Trump has broken with longstanding conservative orthodoxy, in ways that Heritage finds problematic. Three days after Heritage inked its initial Cambridge Analytica fundraising agreement, for instance, Jim DeMint, then the group’s president, appeared on CNN to denounce Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban. Heritage’s advocacy arm was also critical of a recent budget deal negotiated between Trump and leading congressional Democrats.
But Trump’s base of support remains largely intact. And there is a premium for politically-active conservative organizations to be able to reach them.
Cambridge Analytica’s massive database of information on Trump voters is the guidebook for doing just that. And it didn’t hurt that the Mercers are major Heritage Foundation donors. Their family foundation has given Heritage at least $1.5 million since 2013.
According to Heritage’s annual tax filing for 2016, the group paid Cambridge Analytica $120,000 last year for its services, which it itemized as a “contract for data analytics.” Though that transaction did not meet the dollar threshold generally required for disclosure of contractor payments, Heritage was required to note it on that filing due to Mercer’s seat on the group’s board.
In an emailed statement, Heritage spokesperson Sarah Mills said the group requires its board members to recuse themselves from any decisions that might impact their own financial bottom lines.
“Regardless of who is occupying the White House, we are always innovating to expand our base of supporters,” Mills said of Heritage’s worlk with Cambridge Analytica. “That requires trying and employing new techniques and technologies.
According to the contract filed in North Carolina, Cambridge Analytic will cross reference its voter data with lists of existing Heritage donors to ensure it is only providing new fundraising prospects. Cambridge Analytica estimated that it could provide Heritage with the names of 600,000 new potential donors.
Cambridge Analytica collects data far beyond the political leanings of the individuals in its database. It also gathers large amounts of more mundane information, such as consumer preferences and health concerns. The firm boasts more than 5,000 data points about each of the voters in its database.
But Heritage will gain access to only a few of them. According to its Cambridge Analytica contract, the firm will provide the names, addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers of its fundraising prospects. It will also give a rundown of their priority policy issues, and “flags on predicted political/religious characteristics.”
Heritage may use that information to inform digital, telemarketing, and door-to-door fundraising efforts, according to the agreement. Cambridge Analytica will charge the group $50 per 1,000 individuals contacted through the data it provides.
Full disclosure: the author of this piece worked at the Heritage Foundation from 2011 to 2013.