In the week since the United Kingdom voted to part with the European Union, political analysts have been drawing parallels between to the so-called “Leave” campaign and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Both have portrayed immigration as a threat to national security and state authority; both have displayed a hostility to political elites and traditional partisan organizations that coincides with a surge of nationalism; and both campaigns have drawn strong support from less-educated and lower-income voters.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Trump has been thinking about hiring the political data-mining geeks that were part of the Leave campaign’s surprise success--Cambridge Analytica, a British firm that has been making a foray into conservative U.S. politics. Sources close to the Tump campaign told The Daily Beast that his advisers have been debating the merits of hiring the firm, which promises to identify key voters--and bring new ones to the polls--using a proprietary mix of demographic analysis and “psychographic” profiling.
Cambridge Analytica worked for two of Trump’s rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, and its CEO says the company has worked on dozens of other U.S. races.
A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica wouldn’t comment on any potential business with the Trump campaign, which was first reported by Politico. The company declined to make any employees available for an interview. And a Trump campaign spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Based on the kind of work Cambridge Analytica did for Leave.EU, a political organization that successfully lobbied voters to break from the continent, they’d seem a natural fit for Trump.
The company crafts messages that play to people’s anxieties. For the Leave campaign, it targeted voters based on “understanding why certain things worry people,” Brittany Kaiser, a Cambridge Analytica executive, told the trade publication PRWeek last November.
A hallmark of the pro-leave camp was the spectre of uncontrolled immigration, which Trump has made a central pillar of his campaign, as well. One British campaign ad suggested that refugees from war-torn Syria were likely to end up in the U.K., at a time when security officials were concerned that ISIS terrorists might be hiding among their ranks. (Critics compared the ad to Nazi era propaganda and called it misleading because the U.K. controls its own borders and hasn’t experienced nearly the crush of refugees as European nations.)
As Cambridge Analytica scanned the horizon for what kept Britons up at night, it was “helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters,” the Leave.EU campaign explained in a message to supporters called “The Science Behind Our Strategy.”
“Most elections are fought using demographic and socio-economic data. Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic methodology however is on another level of sophistication,” the statement read.
Cambridge Analytica also went after first-time voters and those who felt left out of the political process, the kinds of people that Trump was successful bringing to the polls in primary elections.
“At Leave.EU, we’re going to be running a bottom up campaign,” Kaiser said during a press conference in November. “We’re going to be running large scale research throughout the nation to really understand why people are interested in staying in or out of the E.U. And the answers to that will help inform our policy and our communications, to make sure that we turn out more first time voters, more unregistered voters, more apathetic voters than ever before.”
One of the main ways they did it was through social media. Cambridge Analytica was “constantly monitoring ‘moods’ on our social media platform,” a Leave.EU spokesman told The Sun tabloid. When the company saw a trending topic and sensed a chance to reach voters, they signaled the campaign it was time to jump.
But sometimes too soon. On Remembrance Sunday--the day in November when the U.K. honors its war dead--Leave.EU tweeted that a vote to split with the European Union would honor those who gave their lives for their country, including in the two world wars.
Even other pro-Leave activists called the tweet an act of shameless political opprotuntsm, and the Leave.EU campaign removed it.
But the message was revealing, both of Cambridge Analytica’s strategy--appealing to voters’ core instincts about pride of country--and its tactics--hitting them up on platforms where they were likely already reading messages. The offensive tweet on Remembrance Sunday was sent just an hour after a nationwide moment of silence.
Trump himself has made his Twitter account a key component of his communications strategy and his central campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again.” He even weighed in on the Brexit vote: “They took their country back, just like we will take America back.”
Trump is an inveterate tweeter, and more than a few of his missives have caused offense among potential voters he needs to court, such as when he said on Cinco de Mayo that “the best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” But Trump doesn’t back down from his social media misfires, nor has he handed the control of his account to staff. So it’s not clear what room there is for Cambridge Analytica in a campaign where the candidate himself is already the chief social media strategist.
What is clear, though, is that Cambridge Analytica thinks it has the information Trump needs to win. After Cruz’s victory in the Iowa caucus last year, the company touted its success helping the conservative politician to identify voters and turn them out with narrowly-tailored campaign messages.
Alexander Nix, the company’s CEO, wrote that the “bombastic billionaire” Trump had been bested by a rival who “had the advantage of knowing his target audience better than any of the other candidates.”
Cambridge Analytica sliced and diced Iowa voters’ according to “5,000 data points” the company says it has collected, including information drawn from social media usage and online surveys. That data, it claims in a promotional video, correspond to “national, political, consumer, and lifestyle behavior for every voter in the United States.”
That’s not all. Cambridge Analytica then “adds a unique extra layer of data about personality, decision-making, and motivation.” It’s at this stage the company also breaks voters down into groups characterized by different personality traits that are supposed to tell how persuadable they are: “Openness,” “conscientiousness,” “extraversion,” “agreeableness,” and “neuroticism.”
How does that translate into get-out-the-vote efforts? Nix explained that the company’s models found “a small pocket of voters in Iowa who felt strongly that citizens should be required by law to show photo ID at polling stations.” Cambridge Analytica grouped them by their perceived “personality” traits.
“For people in the ‘Temperamental’ personality group, who tend to dislike commitment, messaging on the issue should take the line that showing your ID to vote is ‘as easy as buying a case of beer,’” Nix wrote. “Whereas the right message for people in the ‘Stoic Traditionalist’ group, who have strongly held conventional views, is that showing your ID in order to vote is simply part of the privilege of living in a democracy.”
It’s not clear how scientific Cambridge Analytica’s methods actually are, and how they differ from traditional demographic analysis that has been used for decades in political and advertising campaigns.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, is particularly dubious of the company’s pitch. “He thought it was all bullshit,” one source familiar with the matter said.
Trump’s newly minted digital director, Brad Parscale, has been pushing the campaign for weeks to hire the company, and the day after the referendum vote the two sides signed an initial contract, a source familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast. But Manafort stepped in the following Monday and kept the arrangement from being finalized, the source said.
The status of the deal is in question now, with Trump’s advisers divided over whether or not the company can actually work the kind of magic it claims. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key adviser, is hot on the firm, and has been siding with Parscale, a digital designer who has previously built web sites for Trump’s organization and is a trusted voice.
Manafort’s skepticism could also point to tensions within the campaign with allegations that Parscale has been charging “confiscatory prices” for services and has been taking advantage of his close relationship to Kushner, one person close to the campaign said. In Cambridge Analytica, Manafort may see a kind of digital snake oil and as a veteran of political campaigns might see it as overkill.
Parscale did not respond a request for comment about the deliberations.
Cambridge Analytica’s secret sauce doesn’t come cheap. The Cruz campaign spent nearly $4 million and ultimately ditched the company, though it did keep on some analysts, according to Fast Company. But the victory in Iowa was enough to put Cambridge Analytica on a hot streak and make American political pundits take notice.
The British data-miner continues to make inroads in GOP politics. Last December, it hired the chief digital officer and the digital marketing director from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. And last week, the company brought on the staffer who ran digital analytics for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential bid.
According to Nix, the company worked on 44 different U.S. elections in 2014, two years after it went into business. But little is known about the the British firm that’s working so hard to influence American politics.
Cambridge Analytica is privately held. The conservative U.S. hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer has been said to be a major funder; he has also given $11 million to a pro-Cruz Super PAC.
But Cambridge Analytica’s parent company is an older British firm, SCL Group, which was founded in 1993 and has made its name providing “psychological operations” and profiling for political campaigns around the world. It has marketed its services to militaries and state security agencies, and once even seemed to imply that it could help stage coups through disinformation campaigns.
The company was founded by an ex-TV and advertising man, Nigel Oakes, who is currently its largest individual shareholder and has the title of director.
Oakes developed the company’s methods, now being deployed in the U.S., at the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, which he founded in London in 1990. The company doesn’t disclose all its clients, but counts the governments of South Africa, Pakistan, Switzerland, Nepal, and the Philippines among them.
But it’s Nix, the Cambridge Analytica CEO, who has become the face of U.S. campaign operations and the firm’s work in British politics. Yet while Cambridge Analytica was working for the side trying to leave the E.U., Nix had publicly avowed his support for Prime Minister David Cameron, who tried to rally his countrymen to remain.
Last April, Nix was one of more than 5,000 small business owners who signed an open letter to The Telegraph applauding Cameron’s leadership and urging that he continue his conservative policies to tackle the deficit, keep interest rates low, and reduce inflation.
Cameron announced last week that he would resign following the Leave campaign’s victory.
As for Trump, if he thinks his campaign can benefit from Cambridge Analytica’s methods, he might want to hurry. Data scientists have tended to go to work for Democratic candidates and the GOP has been slower to embrace new technologies. Speaking at a campaign-technology conference in Washington last month, Kaiser, the Cambridge Analytica executive who worked on the Leave campaign, said that Republicans are having a hard time convincing analysts to come work for conservative candidates.
“It’s very difficult to find the right data science talent, train [them] and get them in [place in] time for the campaigns,” Kaiser said.