Lessons from Trump’s digital campaign

Though it is uncomfortable, there are lessons to be learned from Trump’s campaigning — some about how to be more effective, and some about doing the opposite of Trump, and acting in a way that doesn’t undermine democracy or truth.

Donald Trump voting

The day after the US electoral college chose Donald Trump to be their new president, Huffington Post ran an article on his use of digital campaigning, where Brad Parscale, the digital director of the campaign explains:

“We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economic reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our constitution to do so. We needed to win 270 [electoral college votes], and to do so we needed to win in certain states, and we needed to target registered voters that had a low propensity to vote and a propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.”

This was done by highly-targeted and personalised messages to key voters in key states.

Questionable behaviour by the FBI over Hilary Clinton’s emails, and whatever it is the Russians actually did may have contributed, but Parscale’s point is that very effective targeting gets results.

Part of me is wincing. The targeting is entirely legal, but also strains the definition of democracy — not least because Hilary Clinton had 2.8 million more votes than Trump (and roughly the same number of votes as Barack Obama had in 2012): the problem is that she had the votes in the wrong places. Most worryingly, this means that the voters-who-matter end up being a small number in a few places: marginalising the vast majority.

As in the UK, there is a pressing need for electoral reform, which is hard to achieve because those in power stand to lose by the change. Yet I’m sure that contributed to the sense of alienation among those who turned out to vote for Brexit and for Trump, and to the a referendum campaign where many people were “messaged” rather than informed.

Cynically delivering a targeted message of questionable truthfulness sounds familiar. I am thinking of people who fear illness, value the NHS, and were susceptible to the claim that brexit would bring it another £350M/week, and are slowly waking up to the fact that this was a lie. The tragedy is that the economic damage of brexit will reduce what the government gets in taxes and so starve the NHS of funding, just as attempts to reduce immigration would compound its staff shortages. In the US, Trump mobilised disadvantaged people, who are now discovering that his cabinet between them have as much money as a third of the US population combined.

In January I’m running a training event on the use of Connect (the database used by Liberal Democrats to record contact with voters). I’ll talk about about targetted campaigning and say that this is about getting the relevant parts of our message to people, rather than spreading lies in order to win, but things are less clear than I would like. I can understand the population’s cynicism about politicians.

At a technical level, we could do with looking closely at what Trump did with his messaging. The dilemma is how to avoid betraying our principles, especially in a world where simple-but-untrue messages speak more loudly than wise and nuanced ones.

A big difference between us and Trump is that we do have a core set of values we can be proud of. Messaging those clearly is starting to feel very important, so that the specific, highly-targetted messages are within a framework that makes sense, rather than a “telling it like it is” which appeals to what people need to be true rather than what is.

The tragedy is that both the Trump and Brexit campaigns have benefited from voter alienation — and are acting in ways that actually contribute to it. The task is to ensure our messaging gets people elected but taking voters sufficiently seriously that they don’t feel alienated.

Originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice

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