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Donald Trump's Campaign Far Behind on Critical Data Operation

Trump’s campaign is confident that it's digital voter mobilization operation will rival Clinton’s in the fall, but has done little to build its data force.
Image: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Fresno on May 27, 2016 in Fresno, California. es)Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Donald Trump’s campaign is confident that it has a digital voter mobilization operation that will rival likely opponent Hillary Clinton’s in the fall, but the presumptive Republican nominee has done little to build its data force and is relying on the Republican National Committee to pick up the bulk of the responsibility for the critical component of its campaign.

“All of that stuff you’d use data for is typically done within the RNC,” Barry Bennett, an adviser to Trump, told NBC News in a recent interview about how the campaign is addressing its data operation.

Data is how campaigns identify potential voters. It has become extremely sophisticated in recent years, being able to micro-target supporters, enabling campaigns to understand not only a person's demographics but also their television viewing habits and the products they buy. The information helps to inform campaigns about a person's political preferences.

President Barack Obama transformed modern day campaigning by elevating the importance and use of data. Since then campaigns have prioritized it. Hillary Clinton has been building her data operation since she launched her campaign, but Trump has largely dismissed its importance.

Trump has mocked the importance of sophisticated data, telling the Associated Press earlier this month that he believes it is “overrated.”

“Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me,” he added.

Bennett, with the Trump campaign, attempted to clear up Trump's comments, saying Trump doesn’t dismiss the importance of data collection but that Trump’s criticism referenced the millions of dollars that other campaigns spend to collect data. Bennett points to the more than two million names and contact information Trump has collected from his massive rallies throughout the primary season.

“Everybody else would have had to pay a handful of millions of dollars to identify two million supporters,” Bennett said. “We needed a lot less data because so many people came to the rallies we were able to model what those people look like.”

But Ron Schnell, the chief technology officer for Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, said collecting information on two million rally recipients isn’t that impressive.

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The Paul campaign, with far fewer resources than Trump, gathered information on “a couple orders of magnitude larger than that,” Schnell said.

But Trump's data team is small, relying on one full time outside contractor and "a few" in-house employees. And Trump fired Rick Wiley last week, the senior staffer the RNC was working with on critical issues, including data cooperation.

The Republican National Committee insists that Trump won’t have a lot of catching up to do because the RNC has been doing the work for the presumptive nominee.

“The RNC is a campaign-in-waiting for the presumptive nominee,” Katie Walsh, RNC executive director, said. She added that the RNC has spent $100 million over the past four years on building up its once-sub-par data center. And The RNC said they are prepared to help Trump succeed. They say they have 49 people in the battleground state of Ohio collecting voter information crucial for the data team. Four years ago, they had 12.

“Our data team is going to be in constant communication (with the Trump campaign),” Walsh added. “(The Trump team) still have a voice in the matter and they’re still going to communicate with us.”

Trump's data operation has suffered major hiccups in the past. The Trump campaign asked i360, a third party data organization funded by the Charles and David Koch network, to use its data trove. But i360 refused to let Trump have access even though his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was a former employee of Americans for Prosperity, another organization under the Koch umbrella.

While many other Republican primary candidates used i360, including Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, the Koch brothers are no fans of Trump and have indicated that they will not invest money in the presidential election to help Trump. And they refused to give him any upper edge by refusing him access to their coveted data trove.

Because Trump was forced to turn to the RNC’s data arm in the primary, Trump could have turned it into an advantage. An early partnership could have enabled Trump to build a coveted data operation using Data Trust’s 190 million person voter trove, but because of Trump’s dismissal of the importance of data, the campaign lost months’ worth of critical time to implement and ready a solid data operation.

“Time is extraordinarily helpful to build big and powerful things,” said Lundry.

And Trump and the RNC don’t have a lot of time left.

Alex Lundry, Mitt Romney’s head of data analytics in 2012, said the most difficult components about embarking on a successful data mission is not the gathering of information but enabling all the information to “talk to each other.”

“One of the most time consuming things is to get your disparate data systems to be connective,” Lundry said.

Schnell agreed. Time is “the key,” he said.

For instance, a voter file has a person’s name and address and voting history, which is a good starting point, but it doesn’t include a person’s email address, their Facebook account, or the stores where they shop.

“The challenging part is so much of the important data is inside social media, and it’s tying the voter file into social media file. And the person who gets that right will have the best outcome,” Schnell said.

The RNC insists they, and by extension Trump's campaign, are on track.

"We will have staff across the country with a heightened focus on battleground states." Walsh said, including 49 in the battleground of Ohio. "This is an operation that has been in place for years."