The 2016 Playbook
In the wake of the 2016 election, some on the left sought an explanation for Mr. Trump’s victory in the idea that his campaign had used shadowy digital techniques inspired by military-style psychological warfare — a “Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine,” as one article described it — created by the defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The theories around Cambridge Analytica have never been fully demonstrated, however, and there is a far less nefarious explanation: The Trump campaign simply made better use of standard commercial marketing tools, particularly Facebook’s own high-powered targeting products.
An internal Facebook report written after the 2016 election noted that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent heavily on Facebook — $44 million for Mr. Trump versus $28 million for Hillary Clinton. “But Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex,” the memo said, and were better at using Facebook to bring in donations and find new voters. For instance, roughly 84 percent of the Trump ads focused on getting voters to take an action, such as donating, the report said. Only about half of Mrs. Clinton’s did.
At the same time, the Trump campaign sought to tailor its ads more precisely to specific voters, the report said, with a typical Trump message targeted at 2.5 million people, compared with eight million for the Clinton campaign. And the Trump team simply made more unique ads — 5.9 million versus 66,000.
“We were making hundreds of thousands” of variations on similar ads, Mr. Parscale told “60 Minutes” last year. “Changing language, words, colors.”
The idea, he said, was to find “what is it that makes it go, ‘Poof! I’m going to stop and look.’”
For the left, the Trump campaign’s mastery of social media in 2016 represented a sharp reversal. From the blogs of the mid-aughts to Netroots Nation, the digital activists who helped propel Barack Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012, the left was seen as the dominant digital force. The Democrats had an array of tech-savvy campaign veterans who were adept at data mining and digital organizing, and had overseen the creation of a handful of well-resourced digital consulting firms.
Starting with the 2016 primaries, the Trump campaign reversed the trend. While the more traditionally minded Republican operatives signed on to work for the party’s more traditional candidates, such as Jeb Bush, the Trump campaign found itself reliant on “the outliers, and a lot of them truly believed in digital,” said Zac Moffatt, chief executive of Targeted Victory, a Republican digital strategy firm. “It was a changing of the guard, strategically.”
The Republicans’ 2020 operation — with more than $150 million in cash on hand, according to the latest filings — appears to have picked up where it left off.