How Trump Waged An Under-The-Radar Ground Game
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Chances are you've come across the words of Brad Parscale this year and you just never knew it. Behind the scenes and under the radar, this digital director of the Trump campaign often tweeted as Trump.
BRAD PARSCALE: You know, I know his language. I've been around him for years. And, you know, I'm watching the debate live, and I did it. You know, I posted, I think, a tweet about every 15 seconds to 30 seconds through the debates. And I know - I know the family. I know him very well, so it wasn't that difficult.
MARTIN: In the months leading up to the election, Parscale, who has a background in web marketing and branding, quietly led a 100-person team out of San Antonio, Texas. They drew on surveys, polling and daily election simulation models to carry out an unconventional and highly targeted digital campaign that critics early on wrote off as amateurish and comically bad. But Parscale stayed the course.
PARSCALE: We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economical reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our Constitution to do so. We needed to win 270, 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 propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.
MARTIN: These days, Parscale works out of Trump Tower. We called him up recently to ask how his digital ground game took Trump to the finish line.
PARSCALE: You know, I always thought we had a much better chance to win than everyone. I think the real decisions were, what was voter turnout going to look like, and exactly how many of those undecideds and third-party candidates would come back home? At the end, the third-party candidates did not come home to Hillary. They came our way. And I think that was the significant thing why polls were so wrong. The second thing was, you know, voter turnout.
MARTIN: Lower turnout, yeah.
PARSCALE: Yeah. You know, all modeling and almost all polling's based off of a previous expectation of voter turnout, that somehow it's going to look like before. We'll pool asked questions, then we're going to know what's going to happen in the future. The problem is, if the same people don't show up, then all that means nothing. So we created models that look in all different directions. And by the last few days, I was seeing that we were going to win way over 300 electoral votes.
MARTIN: You mapped out one way to win, and this was it.
PARSCALE: I think that is the way to win an election. You get 270. I think the argument was, which states were the most likely ones to do that? And at the end, you know, I felt that was Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire. I knew that, out of that, I had three or four different paths to victory. And by the week of, I knew that the Rust Belt was going to be the more easy one to win, so I was moving targeted money around.
And this is the advantage of - I didn't have to go get 12 steps of approval. I had to get one from Mr. Trump. And we can move whole budget around from mail, phones, TV, digital - everything - within a couple of hours. And so I think that ended up paying in the end. I mean, I think you see that - how we won Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan. If I would have waited one more day, maybe that had the effect of the, you know, 100,000 votes.
MARTIN: Let me ask you about those last few days. You said, ultimately, the campaign ended up spending $100 million on digital messaging efforts in those last few weeks. What did that look like? Where were you targeting your effort?
PARSCALE: Well mainly, at the end, it was all GOTV.
MARTIN: All get out the vote.
PARSCALE: And partnership with the RNC, yeah. So...
MARTIN: It's interesting because the campaign was lambasted for not having field offices, which is kind of the traditional structure of a get-out-the-vote campaign.
PARSCALE: Yeah, I've always thought that's ridiculous. Most people don't understand what the RNC ground game is. The same people, the same volunteers, the same leadership going into the '14 midterms were in place for '16. So when you turn them back on, they don't have to rebuild all those relationships. They don't have to redo everything. On top of that, they automated the door-knocking program, which was a huge step forward, where the Democrats are still scanning pieces of paper trying to get a database.
MARTIN: What does that mean when you say automate the door-knocking program?
PARSCALE: So if you had an app on your iPhone or Android, you could go knock doors. And when you knock that door, you push a button on your iPhone - you talked and communicated with this person. It would immediately send back to our database, so now we know we don't have to communicate with that person in another method, where Democrats still use pieces of paper that have to be scanned in and then databased later. So they weren't getting real-time information on their door-knocking program. That's a huge advantage for us into our ground game.
MARTIN: In addition to energizing potential Trump supporters, was any of your work about discouraging Clinton supporters from showing up at the polls?
PARSCALE: Well, I mean, I think all campaigns run negative and positive ads. So we would target those to those people who we felt were in the middle till we could move them over either to an undecided or back into a Trump column. We found data, and we ran hundreds of thousands of brand-lift surveys and other types of tests to see how that content was affecting those people so we could see where we were moving them.
MARTIN: So now you've created this architecture to understand American voters. What do you do with it moving forward?
PARSCALE: Well, I think, right now, you know, Mr. Trump's won the presidency, and, you know, that's up to him to decide how he wants to use that data. We're continuing to work with it. We're continuing to cultivate it. I can't really discuss a lot about how - what we're doing going forward, but I'm here to make sure that we use that data in a responsible way and hopefully has eight years there. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that data helps him do that.
MARTIN: That was Brad Parscale, digital director for the Trump campaign, and he was talking to us from Trump Tower in New York City. We should point out that the Clinton campaign would disagree with Parscale's assessment of their ground game. That topic was part of a heated exchange between the campaigns at a forum at Harvard over the weekend.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.