How Clinton and Trump Really Match Up in the Campaign Data Wars

Is Clinton's Data Game Stronger than Trump's?

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Hillary Clinton speaks during a Super Tuesday rally in Miami.
Hillary Clinton speaks during a Super Tuesday rally in Miami. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Will a strong data game give Hillary Clinton an edge over Donald Trump if they face each other in the presidential election this November?

That's what former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe implied recently in an appearance on the Politico podcast "Off Message."

"There is a level of sophistication and knowledge about the electorate in battleground states that just gets advanced every four years," Mr. Plouffe said.

Ms. Clinton's campaign could benefit from the experience accumulated on the Democratic side during two data-centric Obama runs, he suggested, compared with a Trump effort that sometimes seems improvised, to say the least.

Here's how Politico boiled it down:

He thinks Clinton's greatest advantage is a sophisticated data-gathering operation capable of targeting voters, one by one, in swing states, undermining Trump's scattershot populist messaging.

Nor is Mr. Plouffe the first political operative to suggest that Mr. Trump is eschewing data and analytics at his potential peril.

But campaign spending filings don't demonstrate an obvious data gap between the Clinton and Trump operations so far. The bigger problem for Mr. Trump may be the alienation between him and much of the GOP, including the agencies that normally work for the party's campaigns.

Though the Clinton campaign appears to be more dedicated to number-crunching, it isn't clear exactly how much money is being spent directly on data, which encompasses analytics staff, voter data and scoring, data management platforms, audience segmentation for ad targeting, and more.

Federal Election Commission reports show the Clinton campaign has paid its top data staffer Elan Kriegel, co-founder of Democratic data firm BlueLabs, handsomely at around $10,000 a month. Two additional members of the data team, Martha Norrick and Matthew Dover, have been paid around that much combined each month. The Clinton camp also works with BlueLabs, though spent only around $6,000 with the company since October.

In January Politico reported the Trump campaign's hiring of what it called "two low-profile former [RNC] data strategists." One, Witold Chrabaszcz, has earned $6,000 a month, according to FEC reports. No payments to Matt Braynard, the other data hire, show up in Trump campaign FEC filings.

Since October, the Trump camp has also spent around $240,000 with political data firm L2, and around $18,000 with NationBuilder, a platform for voter file management, ingesting new information and turning it into usable things like targeted walk-lists for door-to-door canvassing.

The Clinton campaign uses NGP VAN, a system preferred by Democrats for similar purposes -- essentially enabling political organizations to take action on their data. The campaign spent around $82,000 with NGP VAN since October, FEC reports show.

But merely knowing a company calls itself a "data" or "analytics" firm or the campaign has listed expenditures as data-related does not provide a clear spending picture. Ted Cruz's focus on data through a relationship with U.S. political data newcomer Cambridge Analytica is a good example. Data analytics are an integral part of many media buys today, from direct mail and digital ads to -- increasingly -- television. Much of the hype around the $3.8 million Mr. Cruz's campaign has spent with the firm fails to recognize that it's not all for data-crunching; a portion of that has gone towards media placements.

On the flip side, today's sophisticated media agencies are much more than ad-buying middlemen. With that in mind, we might look at the Clinton camp's spending with two of its top media buying agencies, GMMB and Bully Pulpit Interactive, as data-enhanced media expenditures. That puts the $9.6 million that Ms. Clinton spent with TV firm GMMB and $745,000 with digital agency Bully Pulpit in February in a somehwat different light.

The other wrinkle in all this is that if Ms. Clinton gets the nomination, lots of former Obama campaign data staff would flock to lend their skills to the campaign. Given the warfare between the Republican establishment and the Trump campaign, Trump the nominee might struggle to recruit veteran political data people on the right.

Former RNC digital director and cofounder of Republican analytics firm Echelon Insights, Patrick Ruffini, for example, could be representative of other seasoned practitioners who will sit on the sidelines if Trump gets the nod.

For what it's worth, the GOP primary race is doing for data-driven campaigning what it did for massive TV advertising: put things in perspective. Jeb Bush and his allies spent more than $80 million advertising on TV and radio, far more than has been spent to benefit any of his rivals, ultimately demonstrating only that ads can't do it all. In a similar vein, Mr. Cruz's big spending with Cambridge Analytica has not been enough to keep up with Mr. Trump, the beneficiary not only of a particular mood among voters but massive free media coverage.

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