US Election: Could Donald Trump's data deficit cost him the Presidency?

Clinton is miles ahead in terms of campaign organisation
Clinton is miles ahead in terms of campaign organisation

With both polls and Betfair markets suggesting the candidates are locked in a tight race, campaign organisation could be a gamechanger. Paul Krishnamurty says Donald Trump is way behind Hillary Clinton on that measure...

"Everything Clinton or one of her surrogates does - from the destination of a rally, the style and target audience of a TV ad or wording of each campaign e-mail - is carefully calculated."

Arguably the biggest single reason behind Donald Trump's successful bid for the Republican nomination was the fact he has never been a politician. In an era when professional politicians and loathed and distrusted like never before, Trump's outsider status captivated a conservative audience that yearns for someone to shake up the establishment. Entering the final stretch of the race to be Next President, however, amateurishness could prove his undoing.

At this late stage, having a professional, well-resourced organisation is critical. With more or less 80% of minds already made up, the key is getting them to the polls and targeting the other fifth. That could be via holding rallies in swing counties, mobilising volunteers, television ads, e-mails or other forms of direct messaging.

In order to so effectively, you need to know exactly who to target, where to find them and what messaging they are most responsive to. Otherwise you are wasting precious time, energy and cash. Getting this right can create a decisive advantage over your opponent.

Gathering and utilizing the necessary data is an expensive, specialised task and it's importance cannot be understated. It is a staple of the modern political campaign and some say the key determinant in recent elections that blindsided the polls and made a mockery of a media narrative that declared them to be on a knife-edge.

Barack Obama's digital strategy in 2012 was widely regarded to be a masterpiece, including by envious opponents. Jim Messina was credited with building a peerless campaign, based on big data analytics, that enabled the Democrats to ruthlessly target their message at the right places. The effect in swing states turned a close race into a landslide and Messina's international reputation sky-rocketed.

Obama's guru then turned to the UK, where he was employed by David Cameron's Conservatives ahead of the 2015 General Election. Once again, the opposition was blown away. Despite polls, pundits and betting markets all pointing to virtually tied seat totals, popular vote and a hung parliament, the Tories won by 7% and nearly 100 seats.

The Tory plan did not materialise overnight. It took years of diligent preparation, starting with simple steps like sending out questionnaires by direct mail or garnering likes on social media. The latter was even derided regularly by rival parties, who were spending a tiny fraction on sites such as Facebook.

With the early ground work complete, the Tories were able to fine tune their efforts to precisely the right targets when the campaign proper came around. Election chief Lynton Crosby focused all the party's efforts on a much smaller number of target voters in just 80 of the UK's 650 constituencies - 40 which they were defending and 40 they were chasing hard.

From there, these key voters were targeted with simple, short and ultra-effective messaging that played on views and fears they already held. "You can't trust Labour with the economy." "Don't hand the keys back to the drivers that crashed the car". "Ed Miliband could never be a Prime Minister". "Labour will sell England short by dealing with the SNP".

Hillary Clinton's campaign is similarly planned down to the finest detail. Most of the same professionals that worked on the last two Obama campaigns are on board. A new, little-known guru, Elan Kriegel, is credited as a key player. Everything Clinton or one of her surrogates does - from the destination of a rally, the style and target audience of a TV ad or wording of each campaign e-mail - is carefully calculated.

We've already seen how effective digital campaigning can be in this election, even for candidates that ultimately lost. Ted Cruz outperformed almost every primary poll, thanks to the brilliance of his 'Cruz Crew' campaign. In contrast, Trump derided data as 'overrated' and put minimal effort into this form of campaigning. As a result, Cruz repeatedly won a bigger share of delegates than the bare numbers entitled him to.

As recently as last month, Trump was farming out his digital work to a firm that had worked for his business before, but had no experience of political campaigns. His effort now also includes a powerful firm that helped the Cruz campaign, which should make them much more competitive, but it may be too little, too late. Experts say playing catch-up is not easy, perhaps impossible.

With everything in place for a late onslaught, it is easy to predict some of the Clinton campaign's killer lines. Like the charges against Miliband and Labour, they will play into pre-existing views, fears and prejudices.

"Trump isn't qualified to be President" (a fear borne out overwhelmingly in polls). "Trump cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes." "Trump is a deplorable racist that will divide America". Or when targeting the liberal-minded millenials that supported Obama but are still refusing to join her bandwagon, "A vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is a vote for Trump".

This, even amongst an electorate that plainly has grave doubts about Clinton, will probably be enough to prevent a Trump presidency.



Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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