Democrats and the media mocked then-candidate Donald Trump’s data analytics team throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. But that was then.
Now a new assessment is emerging — that Trump’s crackerjack campaign was indispensable to Russian agents who meddled in the election.
“Our campaign had trouble putting the correct addresses and phone numbers on mailings, let alone running some Tom Clancy-style espionage ring.”
Defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made the charge at a conference Wednesday when she said the Russians could not successfully have interfered unless they were “guided by Americans.” She later made clear she was “leaning toward Trump” as a suspect.
Nick Ackerman, who was an assistant Watergate prosecutor, picked up on the theme in an interview with CNN on Thursday.
“The allegation that we’re looking at here is whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government with this data-mining and micro-targeting to voters across the country,” he said. “I mean there are a lot of experts who are saying that there is no way that this could have been done by the Russians alone without some cooperation from within the Trump campaign.”
Neither Clinton nor Ackerman explained how Russian agents could be so sophisticated that they managed to hack into Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta’s iPhone and the Democratic National Committee computers but could not figure out on their own how to give what they took to WikiLeaks.
Beyond that, it is whiplash-inducing correction to now proclaim the deftness of the Trump team’s data-analytics ability. Veterans of the Trump campaign laughed at the suggestion that its data operations knowledge would have been an assistance to Russian spies.
“With the exception of our online operations and Facebook operations, there was very little sophistication in any part of the Trump campaign at any time,” one former campaign staffer told LifeZette. “Our campaign had trouble putting the correct addresses and phone numbers on mailings, let alone running some Tom Clancy-style espionage ring.”
Clinton operatives and independent experts dismissed Trump’s campaign in real-time as hopelessly amateurish.
The Associated Press reported in May of last year: “Donald Trump trails Hillary Clinton by months, even years, in using fast-evolving digital campaigning to win over voters, data specialists working with the GOP say.”
As late as the week of the November election, the experts judged that Trump had not caught up. Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer doubted that the Trump campaign could match Clinton’s.
“If it does end up that way, there are going to be a lot of political science departments canceling their campaigns and elections classes,” he told LifeZette at the time. “And we’d be one of them.”
Democratic operative James Carville said in June that “there is no Trump campaign,” referring to the candidate’s failure to assemble the kind of staff necessary to win a modern campaign.
National Public Radio reporter Scott Detrow said on May 30, “There’s no question that Donald Trump is a little leery of technology.”
Trump himself confirmed that in a separate AP interview that month. He downplayed the significance of having a large team of numbers-crunchers and computer whizzes who could identify possible supporters and feed them customized messages.
“I’ve always felt it was overrated,” he said. “[Then-President Barack] Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me.”
A May 2016 story in Politico reported that Clinton had a “massive head start over Trump when it came to analytics, polling and building models of likely voters and turnout plans.” The story noted that Trump only recently had even hired a pollster and had yet to spend any money on polling, while Clinton had spent $896,000 in April alone.
Clinton campaign officials made no secret of the fact that they believed they enjoyed a massive advantage over Trump. Elan Kriegel, Clinton’s analytics director, who held a similar position with Obama’s 2012 campaign, suggested in May 2016 that it was too late for Trump to close the gap.
“If you weren’t doing it several months ago, then you really are starting from scratch,” she told the AP.
The same story quoted anonymous sources on the Trump campaign that campaign Rick Wiley — who had been brought aboard to upgrade data harvesting — left amid internal disputes.
In September, Eric Siegel wrote in Scientific American that Clinton’s campaign was “leveraging predictive analytics” while Trump was lagging.
“Hillary for America is leveraging data science in a very particular way,” he wrote. “The undertaking predicts each individual voter’s response to campaign contact in order to drive millions of decisions as to which voter receives a knock on the door or a phone call. It’s an innovative, data-driven process that has changed the game for political campaigns.”
All of that 2016 conventional wisdom has been replaced by a 2017 conventional wisdom that it was Trump’s campaign that had a unique ability to target voters and that the Russians would have needed instructions about how to spread anti-Clinton information.
Karoun Demirjian, a Washington Post freelance reporter previously based in Moscow, disputed the premise that Russia could not have acted unilaterally.
“When you’re living overseas, it is shocking how many people understand the importance of Iowa, and New Hampshire and the intricacies of the parties and where they don’t match up,” she said on CNN. “People pay attention to the United States in ways that we don’t pay attention to anybody else … The idea that people, you know, overseas have no idea how American politics works is just false.”