Star of Trump’s 2016 Digital Strategy Fades in Changed World

(Bloomberg) — This spring, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale gave the operation he had been building for the last three years a nickname: the Death Star. “It is firing on all cylinders. Data, Digital, TV, Political, Surrogates, Coalitions, etc. In a few days we start pressing FIRE for the first time,” he wrote on Twitter Inc.

But now that the time has come for the Death Star to be fully operational, Parscale has been removed from its command. On Wednesday night President Donald Trump replaced Parscale with Bill Stepien, his administration’s former political director. Parscale will stay on to run the campaign’s digital and data operations. But it was a humbling demotion for the operative who was largely seen as the mastermind of Trump’s unconventional 2016 run, and a reminder that campaigns are about more than tactics. 

As head of Trump’s digital operations four years ago, Parscale ran an aggressive advertising operation that focused on Facebook Inc., using the company’s “Lookalike Audiences” tool to target users of the social network who met the profile of Trump supporters. The campaign also engaged in a strategy of self-described voter suppression, where it targeted Black voters, White liberals and young women with anti-Hillary Clinton messages.

Trump’s campaign also ignored conventional wisdom to target states like Wisconsin and Michigan that the Clinton campaign seemed to take for granted. Just days before the 2016 election, reporters were asking why the campaign was sending Trump to Grand Rapids, Michigan. But Parscale and his digital operation ultimately won the support of enough working class white voters to pull out surprise victories in those states. He became a sudden star, and Democratic strategists worried that his success showed that they’d fallen far behind in online campaigning, setting up 2020 as a do-over.

Now the Trump campaign is in a deep slump, for reasons that have less to do with campaign tactics and more to do with the president’s performance on the coronavirus. “I think the shake-up is to be expected. Indeed, the only surprise here is that it has taken this long,” said Steven Livingston, the founding director at the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University. “It can be explained by two words: Tulsa and polls,” he said, referencing the president’s poorly-attended campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “When you’re running about 15 percentage points behind your opponent, something’s got to give. That something was Brad Parscale.”

Many campaign experts—including Parscale himself—say that what he did in 2016 wasn’t so revolutionary. “Brad Parscale is no digital dark arts genius,” says Tara McGowan, founder and CEO of Acronym, a non-profit associated with the Democratic Party that is focused on digital campaigning. “Brad was proficient at digital marketing best practices, took them seriously and he was empowered to do them seriously at scale.”

Trump named Parscale as his campaign manager in early 2018—a remarkably early decision—and Parscale began laying the groundwork for an even more aggressive data operation for the president’s re-election bid. The campaign spent heavily online. It has used waves of ads on Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to ask voters to sign petitions on behalf of the president, often highlighting culture war conflicts that motivate Trump’s strongest supporters.

The targeted ads are often aimed at getting people to share an email address so the campaign can assemble profiles on prospective voters in order to turn them out to vote. Trump’s mobile application, which in June had nearly 800,000 downloads, asks for permission to access far more data than the campaign app of Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, according to MIT Technology Review. It has also been fastidiously collecting voter’s phone numbers.

Parscale’s fixation on data collection was a factor in one of the campaign’s largest failures to date: the sparsely-attended rally in Tulsa. The campaign continued to collect reservations even after the waiting list had far more people than the venue could accommodate. Parscale boasted that the large number of total reservations—which were inflated by a prank by Trump opponents—was a sign of deep support. When voters didn’t turn out for the rally, he tried to position the real-world outcome as inconsequential, since the campaign got their data anyway.

Parscale did other things to alienate the president. He took the unusual strategy of turning his own Facebook page into a sort of campaign surrogate. He has attracted headlines for his Ferrari and $400,000 boat. “He violated campaign rule 101 which is don’t promote yourself more than you promote the campaign,” said Ben Nuckels, a Democratic media consultant and former campaign manager.

Demoting Parscale suggests the campaign sees its problems in terms of flawed tactics, according to Livingston. He described its strategy as, “change leadership and get yourself a new tactical strategist.”

But it’s not clear how much Stepien intends to change the strategy, especially with Parscale continuing to run the digital operation. In a statement Thursday, Stepien said Parscale would be “heavily involved,” and questioned the accuracy of the polls showing Biden with a large lead. “We have a better team, better voter information, a better ground game, better fundraising, and most importantly, a better candidate with a better record,” he said.

Many people who are following the campaign see Trump’s problems as running far deeper than Parscale. “It doesn’t matter how good your tactical strategy is if your message is not resonating with voters,” McGowan said. “I was surprised that they weren’t savvier to pivot to a new message strategy. They were just going back to what worked in 2016, and the world is very different now.”

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