Title Ted Cruz erased Trump's Iowa lead by spending millions on voter targeting | US news | The Guardian
Publication Date 2016-02-01
Text Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign has ramped up its aggressive voter-targeting operation, paying out more than $3m to a company that – along with parallel funding via Super Pacs linked to the senator’s top donor – is using detailed psychological profiles to sway voters.
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A Guardian analysis of the final campaign disclosures released on the eve of Iowa’s caucuses shows the Cruz campaign, banking on a win in the first-in-the-nation voting state, significantly outspent his main Republican rivals in targeting potential voters online during the final quarter of 2015.
During this period, Cruz surged in the polls and emerged as a frontrunner from the crowded Republican race in Iowa as attack ads rained down on Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. Trump went on to regain his lead ahead of Monday night’s Iowa caucuses. Over the weekend, the Cruz campaign came under fire separately for mailing accusations of a “voting violation” to individual Iowa residents amid what privacy and transparency experts said had amounted to “a military escalation” of data-driven campaigning.
The federally mandated release of expenditure filings on Sunday shows a crescendo of spending as well-funded campaigns and their allied Super Pacs bolster their digital firepower by pouring record amounts of cash into the so-called “micro-targeting” of voters across social media with increasingly personal ads.
Cruz has deepened his ties to the little-known data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, directing around 20% of overall spending during the reporting period to the data scientists embedded at Cruz’s campaign headquarters in Houston.
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In December, the Guardian uncovered long-standing privacy and ethical issues around the way Cambridge Analytica’s parent company had acquired detailed psychological data on tens of millions of voters using data harvested from largely unwitting Facebook users.
Cambridge Analytica is understood to be financed by hedge-fund magnate Robert Mercer, who is also the leading individual donor to the Cruz campaign. Last year, the influential but reclusive Wall Street executive channeled $11m into the pro-Cruz Super Pac Keep the Promise I.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Robert Mercer has taken an ‘unusually active role for a major donor’, says a campaign transparency watchdog. Photograph: ddp USA/Rex Shutterstock
The Mercer-backed group is part of a cluster of pro-Cruz Super Pacs, which all use a variation of the name Keep the Promise. In recent weeks Cambridge Analytica appears to have played a key role in a digital advertising blitzkrieg, funded by the web of Super Pacs that support Cruz.
According to so-called “independent expenditure” reports, the Mercer-backed group, Keep the Promise I, has paid out almost $350,000 to Cambridge Analytica since mid-November. The records state the firm provided unspecified “media” in order to support Cruz and attack rival candidates Marco Rubio and Donald Trump.
While the Keep the Promise Super Pacs officially exist as separate entities, the groups work together and keep in touch with weekly strategy calls, according to the Washington Post. In the two weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus, the Super Pacs spent $1.1m on online campaigning and advertising.
The involvement with Cambridge Analytica by both the Cruz campaign and an allied Super Pac appears to contrast with a decision made by Jeb Bush’s campaign last year to halt plans which would have seen the candidate share a data analytics company with the pro-Bush group, Right to Rise.
In October, the Associated Press reported the Bush campaign halted the plan over concerns around potentially crossing the line of coordination. Even after the 2010 US supreme court decision that allowed unlimited outside funding, candidates’ campaigns and Super Pacs are prohibited from coordinating political activities and must maintain separate operations.
Richard Skinner, a policy analyst at transparency watchdog the Sunlight Foundation, said shared vendors are traditionally one of the “red flags” when detecting coordination between a campaign and an outside group.
Asked to examine the relationships stemming from Cruz’s data-centric operations, Skinner said the campaign and Super Pac are not simply sharing a company that manufacturers campaign T-shirts, but a company that is providing an essential service to both.
“The data is clearly pretty central to the campaign and presumably central to what the Super Pac is doing,” Skinner said in a phone interview on Monday, adding that Mercer had taken an “unusually active role for a major donor” in Cruz campaign operations.
In an email, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix said his company treats compliance with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules as an “utmost priority”. He added: “With this in mind we have strict fire-walling procedures in place wherein the staff, data, and systems for each campaign are physically and electronically separated.”
A spokesman for Mercer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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The latest federal disclosures suggest the Cruz campaign is relying heavily on Cambridge Analytica as a pillar of his campaign operation, spending $3,055,990.95 from October through December. “We have a very successful relationship,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told the Guardian in December, adding that information was acquired legally. “They’re a great company, they provide us great data, and it helps us be highly effective in communicating with our voters.” (Tyler and a campaign spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article.)
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Cruz campaign expenditures on the data firm Cambridge Analytica. Photograph: Screenshot: ProPublica Campaign Finance API
So far, other Republican candidates have spent considerably less on comparable data firms and digital-focused political consultants.
Of the $1.3m Rubio’s campaign spent during the final quarter of 2015 on digital campaigning – or what on the campaign trail is known as “digital, data and analytics” – the largest sum of around $460,000 went to Optimus Consulting, a relatively small data analytics firm which has an established relationship with the Florida senator’s campaign.
Meanwhile, Trump spent more on hats than he did on data analytics. In early November, his campaign paid $235,000 to L2 Political, a minor Washington-based voter targeting and analytics outfit which focuses on political clients.
Overall, Bush’s campaign spent around $800,000 on the digital campaign trail, over half of which went to Deep Root Analytics, a firm co-founded by former Mitt Romney data scientist Alex Lundry, who also serves as the Bush campaign’s director of analytics.
‘Violations’ – and a war for targeting
In the final hours ahead of the 2016 campaign’s first vote, which was set to begin in Iowa on Monday evening, the Cruz campaign was condemned from all sides for applying its newfound targeting prowess to old-fashioned voter outreach.
On Friday, it emerged the campaign had sent official-looking direct mail to some voters accusing them of a “voting violation”. The mailer, which did not involve Cambridge Analytica, used so-called “social pressure” techniques and calculated a fake score for each target voter, along with their neighbors, according to their participation in recent elections.
Responding to the controversy on Saturday night, Cruz was bullish. “I apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote,” he told a press conference in Sioux City.
Experts in modern-day election outreach said the mail episode, taken together with big-money online profiling, showed the Cruz campaign’s expertise in using psychological methods to pressure individuals into voting.
David Peterson, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, appreciated that Cruz is trying to run a “smart and advanced” campaign by drawing on psychological techniques and academic research, but claimed the mailer had crossed a line.
“We know candidates and campaigns mislead people all the time about themselves and their opponents,” he said. “But it’s the misleading about private citizens who have no connection to any of this that strikes me as particularly galling, and that’s what’s a step too far.”
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In recent years, a wide body of academic research has found “social pressure” is often highly effective in increasing turnout – the key blockage in the senator’s path to overtaking Trump’s poll lead at the caucuses.
“Just by gently signalling that people are watching you has been shown to increase participation,” said Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Yale University who focuses on voter attitudes and campaign strategy.
Joseph Turow, a leading data privacy expert and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that as the 2016 primary votes arrived, political analysts had seen an “upward trajectory” in data-driven campaigns targeting voters across devices and in specific moments.
“Essentially it’s a military escalation because every group and every competitor is trying to outdo the other,” he said in an interview ahead of Sunday’s federally mandated filings.