The world wonders how Trump managed to beat the odds and win the 2016 Presidential election. An important element of his victory, perhaps the decisive piece of the puzzle, was the relationship between the giant technology companies and the Trump campaign.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter assigned full time staff to assist candidates during the 2016 primary and general elections. They organized their political staffing along partisan lines, Republican and Democratic, hiring former campaign workers with technical savvy and partisan leanings. As company employees, they offered enthusiastic customer service by directly manipulating the social media levers in response to events – crafting new messages and variations of the same messages with a few keystrokes.
The well-heeled Clinton campaign relied on in-house staff to strategize and implement its media campaign. In mid-summer 2016, Trump’s short-staffed and cash-strapped campaign rented an office space in a strip mall near the San Antonia airport, designated it as their social media hub, and invited the tech giants to locate teams there for their mutual benefit. Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter quickly staffed up in San Antonio where they worked hand-in-glove with the Trump campaign until election day.
Having partisan teams favorably disposed to the success of the candidates was smart business. The tech giants had three motives. Foremost, they wanted to capture as much of the $2 billion dollar quadrennial expenditures for Presidential campaigning as they possibly could. The collaboration was a resounding success for the campaign and the companies. The Trump campaign spent $70 million on social media ads soliciting contributions and received $250 million in return.
Second, they wanted to promote their advanced products in the political space. In July, before and during the DNC Philadelphia Convention, they rented floor space in the re-purposed Power Plant on 2nd Street to show off their analytics platforms. These evolving technologies count user statistics and organize them as informative graphics. How is the ad you put up ten minutes ago doing? What topics are trending? What are Facebook users “liking”? How’s that tweet doing with veterans?
Microsoft did not send a team to San Antonio, but they deployed partisans to assist the candidates during the primary and general election campaigns by providing back office support, ensuring that the campaigns had fully functional, high-volume social media infrastructure. Microsoft also captured vital information for the candidates, second-by-second likes and dislikes of thousands of demographically identified viewers as the candidates were talking during the debates.
Google teams played a major role. If you did a Google search including a candidate’s name and one of hundreds of campaign-related topics, Google displayed ads that were specifically tailored to the search you had entered, and fresh content that was continuously updated by the campaign in response to the analytics.
The third motive, as a Facebook employee told a North Carolina University research team, was the development of working relationships with political campaign staff. The companies hope that the relationships will be leveraged as lobbying advantages in future government affairs, connections to legislators who will vote on media regulation. Given the ways of Washington, this is pretty smart strategy.
The Trump campaign was floundering in early August 2016, coming in a very distant second in every predictive category without exception. Thereafter, with the help of partisan teams from Google, Facebook and Twitter, the Trump campaign ran 40,000 to 50,000 variants of digital ads every day. On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the campaign ran 175,000 ad variations. The cost of running a social media ad is ridiculously low in comparison to a TV ad, pennies to dollars. With almost as many voters relying on social media news feeds for political information as those watching TV news, investments in digital ads pay off in a big way.
The Democratic Party made quite a few strategic mistakes in 2016, not least of which was choosing a candidate with a lot of negative baggage. But perhaps their greatest mistake was relying on a huge internal team for social media expertise. In the final months of the campaign, there were simply outplayed by the tech giants.
Citation: Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, Journal of Political Communications, October 26, 2017, available via Taylor & Francis Online