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Is the Donald Trump Campaign Getting Scammed by Data Hucksters?

Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Today’s Businessweek article by Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg about the inner workings of the Donald Trump campaign is fascinating for a lot of reasons. Understandably, the part of the article that’s getting passed around the most is the quote from an unnamed senior henchman of Trump’s that “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” meaning attempts to shrink the Clinton-friendly electorate rather than expand Trump’s appeal.

What will these suppression efforts look like? One of them suggests that Trump and his staffers have been snookered by some data-science mumbo jumbo:

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

The Trump team’s effort to discourage young women by rolling out Clinton accusers and drive down black turnout in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with targeted messages about the Clinton Foundation’s controversial operations in Haiti is an odd gambit. Campaigns spend millions on data science to understand their own potential supporters—to whom they’re likely already credible messengers—but here Trump is speaking to his opponent’s. Furthermore, there’s no scientific basis for thinking this ploy will convince these voters to stay home. It could just as easily end up motivating them.

Issenberg, the author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, is well versed in this sort of science, and “no scientific basis” is almost an understatement — if you know anything about the basics of political science or data analysis, or both, you know that the idea that a last-second burst of Facebook posts could flip any meaningful number of people from voters to nonvoters is fairly bonkers, and doubly bonkers when you’re targeting a group which has exhibited an historic amount of animus toward your candidate.

To a certain extent, anyone expecting rational or well-thought-through behavior out of the Trump campaign has already lost. Still, after the election, it’ll be be interesting to see whether Issenberg, Green, and/or other journalists can tell the fuller story of how this approach was pitched to the Trump campaign and who decided to adopt it.

But more broadly, and whether or not there’s anything to this miraculous-seeming technology, it’s such a strange move, 13 days before the election, to be proudly touting your attempts to suppress your opponent’s likely voters. This is what an NFL coach would call “bulletin-board material” — every swing-state Democratic operative and volunteer is now emailing the Businessweek article to everyone they know, telling them to be on the lookout for a sudden influx of strange, anti-Clinton Facebook posts.

So maybe this is better understood as an attempt on the part of the data team working for Trump to use a big magazine article as an opportunity to advertise their cool, fancy-sounding technology. In a week and a half, after all, the campaign will be over, and with it paychecks from the Trump campaign — but there will still be plenty of tech-unsavvy potential clients likely to go wide-eyed at the prospect of something-something-big-data-Facebook-microtargeting-turnout.

Is the Trump Campaign Getting Scammed by Data Hucksters?