What a difference three months make. After Ted Cruz won the Iowa Caucus on February 1, squeaking by Donald Trump in a 3-point win, reports suggested his campaign's sophisticated use of data and analytics to target voters with messages customized to their psychological proclivities had a lot to do with it. Mr. Cruz finally called it quits yesterday following a bruising primary run.
It was soon after the Cruz campaign's Iowa success when The Guardian credited the win to data prowess, declaring, "Ted Cruz erased Trump's Iowa lead by spending millions on voter targeting." The U.K. news outlet detailed the campaign's work with British political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, noting that sources said pre-Iowa tactics "showed the Cruz campaign's expertise in using psychological methods to pressure individuals into voting."
"Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign is obsessed with data," said NPR host Robert Siegel in February, introducing a report on Cambridge Analytica's work with the Cruz camp.
Since its launch in 2015, the Cruz campaign spent $5.5 million with Cambridge Analytica, some of which may have been used for media buys rather than data and analytics services, according to Federal Election Commission reports. The Texas Senator's decision to bow out of the race after several primary losses -- coupled with the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, who has captivated primary voters with simple mass-marketed brand messaging through earned media rather than spending on precisely-targeted digital and TV media -- will have many pundits wondering what it all means for the use of data in politics.
"Data did play an important role and helped us make important decisions and improve our targeting and communications along the way. But data without a candidate like Sen. Cruz would be worthless ones and zeros," stated Chris Wilson, director of research and analytics for the Ted Cruz campaign, noting the Senator survived amid a flood of 17 candidates that started the Republican primary season. "I'm sure the Obama team would tell you the same thing -- they couldn't do what they did for [Barack Obama] for Bernie Sanders, for example. So, no, it's not magic. But a sophisticated data operation sure can make things easier along the way."
Mr. Wilson is also CEO of research and data science firm Wilson Perkins Allen. The Cruz camp paid WPA more than $1 million during the primaries.
Cambridge Analytica garnered a lot of attention among U.S. political clients and media for its method of categorizing voters inspired by the classic five-factor model for gauging personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The company, which also has ties to Robert Mercer, magnanimous Cruz-backer and funder of pro-Cruz PAC Keep the Promise, used online surveys and other digital data to build models determining voter partisanship, likelihood to vote, ideology, ethnicity, religiosity and stances on issues.
"Cambridge Analytica has worked closely with Cruz for President to build one of the most innovative presidential campaigns in U.S. history," declared the company in a press release the day after the Iowa Caucus.
Another offering that caught media attention was Cambridge Analytica's inclusion of its own staff as embedded members of the Cruz camp. The company's embeds -- not the only people from outside companies embedded with Cruz staff -- were there in part to ensure language used in ads, emails and other targeted campaign communications reflected the nuances designed to speak in the tones each voter segment would respond to.
It's no surprise political observers were intrigued by the Cruz camp's use of this new data firm on the scene. The consensus narrative of President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign was a reaffirmation of 2008 -- that his deft use of technology, digital media and the data that drives it had propelled his two presidential wins. Profiles of key members of the campaign's unprecedented in-house staff of "quants," "geeks," "data crunchers" and others more focused on algorithms than optics abounded.
"There was a lot of hype that data was the important factor as opposed to an enhancement around really smart people and a good candidate," said a longtime Republican digital consultant who asked not to be named in this story.
The interest in the Cruz camp's work with Cambridge Analytica was in part a reflection of the acceptance that the GOP, after two presidential cycles of lackluster use of data and digital media were finally capable of doing something innovative and fresh. It didn't hurt that Cambridge Analytica made its executives available for media interviews, a rarity in the non-disclosure-agreement-obsessed world of political vendors. The company declined to comment for this story.
Writing for Bloomberg Politics, Sasha Issenberg, author of the 2013 book about the data revolution in politics, "The Victory Lab," penned an in-depth analysis in late 2015 of the company's approach to voter segmentation and message targeting, based on his visit to its London headquarters. On Tuesday, he promoted the book on Twitter with tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of its apparent irony:
A reminder that my entirely-outdated book about how to win elections in the 21st century is still for sale: https://t.co/tCIjUpQCZa— Sasha Issenberg (@sissenberg) May 4, 2016
Most have a nuanced opinion when it comes to the power of data and its role in the modern political campaign. Bill Levik, vice chairman and president of Comscore, formerly vice chairman and CEO of Rentrak, a TV data firm that has worked with several 2016 presidential campaigns, suggested the importance of candidate perception and messaging with or without data. "When you have the best data it sells equally well a bad message; at the end of the day it still is about the product."
"It's easy to poo-poo it and say, you know, it didn't work," said the GOP consultant, adding, "Cruz did have success with data in identifying and turning out voters." he said. "Personality helped Trump with the grassroots and hurt Cruz with the establishment."