Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich Slow-Walk Their Data Transfer to Trump
A crucial step in unifying a political party, akin to the laying down of arms after a long war, is the moment when losing candidates relinquish all the data they hoarded during their primary campaigns to the party organization. This moment is usually specified in contracts as the start of the convention, at which point the data can be redistributed the the presidential nominee and down-ballot candidates nationwide.
“What will come back is any voter contact or information they have gleaned about a voter,” Katie Walsh, the Republican National Committee’s chief of staff, said in early March, as her party’s nominating contest raged at full tilt. “If that campaign knocked a door, then I’m going to know about it.”
But this is an unusual year, and so it goes with data: As the convention begins Monday in Cleveland, Donald Trump’s final three competitors, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, have all yet to hand over their data to the committee, according to several people familiar with the campaigns’ machinations.
The prospect of 16 candidates returning data from door knocks and phone calls to feed into statistical models to profile likely and potential Trump supporters promised a moment plump with irony. Many of the other Republican campaigns knew far more about who Trump’s supporters were than Trump's own campaign did. After spending the primary season dismissive of their investments, Trump’s prospects against Hillary Clinton would be aided by the work of vanquished rivals who had spent more on survey-informed analytics (like Rubio) and volunteer-based field programs (like Cruz).
The return of data is typically part of the routine wind-down of a losing primary campaign, facilitated by operatives who are eager to aid the nominee and remain in good standing with party bosses who control general-election contracts. This year’s delay—which appears to be motivated by a blend of inertia, legal ambiguity, conscious stalling, and decided resistance—is one more place where Trump’s ability to put the party organization to work for him is complicated by mistrust and the residual grievance of those who are already looking beyond his candidacy.
“It could be contentious because all these guys are running in four years and don’t want to give it back,” said a Republican consultant who played a senior role working with data for a Trump’s rival.
Data-sharing agreements are a standard component of the bargain between a party and its candidates. Campaigns get access to a unique repository of intelligence on the electorate—the RNC has been adding to its national voter file for a quarter-century—in exchange for enriching it with fresh information. Ultimately every Republican presidential candidate this year but for Rand Paul signed the data-sharing agreement. In a March interview, Walsh said she expected all of them to return updates by the convention, even if—as has been the case with Cruz and Kasich—the also-rans have not been otherwise forthcoming with support for the nominee. “Once a campaign has a volunteer list and they suspend, they share it with us,” she said. (The committee did not respond to a request last week for comment.)
The data returned by campaigns usually goes far beyond a list of volunteers. Canvassers often serve as the equivalent of political census-takers, locating a voter who no longer lives at the address where she’s registered, uncovering that someone listed as a precinct captain who is now deceased, or adding a new cellphone number for a person previously reachable only by landline. Otherwise Republican candidates would likely collect responses to phone-bank surveys, in the form of IDs, which identify a voter’s conditions preference or position on an issue, or tags classifying a voter by interest or affinity group. According to Walsh, the RNC’s voter file currently has 33,000 such tags, from religious affiliations to hobbies such as hunting or fishing. Fundraising lists, which are not typically built off a voter file, are usually guarded by failed candidates for their own future use or resale.
That data would likely be most useful this year to pinpoint supporters of other candidates who could be mobilized to volunteer for a Trump-led ticket, and to identify Republicans or right-leaning independents who proved resistant to Trump in the primaries but could be targets for persuasion when the alternative is Clinton. Beyond their wariness about aiding Trump, former candidates considering another run see the problem in converting one of 2016’s most valuable assets into 2020’s community property. Does Kasich want Rubio to have a list of his New Hampshire backers and their top issue concerns? Could Cruz plausibly threaten a primary challenge to a President Trump if the incumbent has a map to his support?
Data-sharing expectations are a vestige of a time when not only was party unity taken for granted, but national committees counted on a monopolistic role as data providers. The rules are often understood to obligate campaigns to return only that information gleaned from contacts made based on RNC data, and some of the holdout campaigns are justifying their delinquency as a consequence of the new complexity of the marketplace. Even though every campaign except Paul’s had access to party data, few serious contenders relied on it solely to profile the electorate. Many chose to augment the RNC’s voter file with material from i360, a rival database controlled by the political network associated with Charles and David Koch, or other sources. (Trump contracted during the primaries with L2, a nonpartisan data provider.)
Thus far none of the three candidates who hung on longest against Trump have handed over any of their data, which technically passes through the Data Trust, an independent company that the RNC charters to manage its voter file. Advisers to Cruz and Rubio say that they expect the transfer to take place eventually, although it does not seem like a priority for either, especially now that Rubio’s analysts are preoccupied with his late-blooming candidacy for re-election to the Senate. On Cruz’s team, the process of preparing data for the RNC’s use has been slowed by a shift in database systems used by Wilson Perkins Allen, the firm that conducted Cruz’s polling and oversaw his analytics program. “It’s not complicated,” Chris Wilson, the firm’s co-founder and a Cruz adviser, explained. “I just have to go through our file and pull out what we’re going to share.”