Trump’s Data Team Saw a Different America—and They Were Right
Nobody saw it coming. Not the media. Certainly not Hillary Clinton. Not even Donald Trump’s team of data scientists, holed up in their San Antonio headquarters 1,800 miles from Trump Tower, were predicting this outcome. But the scientists picked up disturbances—like falling pressure before a hurricane—that others weren’t seeing. It was the beginning of the storm that would deliver Trump to the White House.
Flash back three weeks, to Oct. 18. The Trump campaign’s internal election simulator, the “Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory,” showed Trump with a 7.8 percent chance of winning. That’s because his own model had him trailing in most of the states that would decide the election, including the pivotal state of Florida—but only by a small margin. And in some states, such as Virginia, he was winning, even though no public poll agreed.
Trump’s numbers were different, because his analysts, like Trump himself, were forecasting a fundamentally different electorate than other pollsters and almost all of the media: older, whiter, more rural, more populist. And much angrier at what they perceive to be an overclass of entitled elites. In the next three weeks, Trump channeled this anger on the stump, at times seeming almost unhinged.
“A vote for Hillary is a vote to surrender our government to public corruption, graft, and cronyism that threatens the survival of our constitutional system itself,” Trump told an Arizona crowd on Oct. 29. “What makes us exceptional is that we are a nation of laws and that we are all equal under those laws. Hillary’s corruption shreds the principle on which our nation was founded.”
His hyperbole and crassness drew broad condemnation from the media and political elite, who interpreted his anger as an acknowledgment that he was about to lose. But rather than alienate his gathering army, Trump’s antipathy fed their resolve.
He had an unwitting ally. “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message,” says Steve Bannon, his campaign chief executive officer. “From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”
Trump’s analysts had detected this upsurge in the electorate even before FBI Director James Comey delivered his Oct. 28 letter to Congress announcing that he was reopening his investigation into Clinton’s e-mails. But the news of the investigation accelerated the shift of a largely hidden rural mass of voters toward Trump.
Inside his campaign, Trump’s analysts became convinced that even their own models didn’t sufficiently account for the strength of these voters. “In the last week before the election, we undertook a big exercise to reweight all of our polling, because we thought that who [pollsters] were sampling from was the wrong idea of who the electorate was going to turn out to be this cycle,” says Matt Oczkowski, the head of product at London firm Cambridge Analytica and team leader on Trump’s campaign. “If he was going to win this election, it was going to be because of a Brexit-style mentality and a different demographic trend than other people were seeing.”
Trump’s team chose to focus on this electorate, partly because it was the only possible path for them. But after Comey, that movement of older, whiter voters became newly evident. It’s what led Trump’s campaign to broaden the electoral map in the final two weeks and send the candidate into states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that no one else believed he could win (with the exception of liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who deemed them “Brexit states”). Even on the eve of the election Trump’s models predicted only a 30 percent likelihood of victory.
The message Trump delivered to those voters was radically different from anything they would hear from an ordinary Republican: a bracing screed that implicated the entire global power structure—the banks, the government, the media, the guardians of secular culture—in a dark web of moral and intellectual corruption. And Trump insisted that he alone could fix it.
In doing so, Trump knit together a worldview, frequently propounded by Bannon, that the U.S. was on the cusp of joining the right-wing populist uprisings that have swept across Europe. It was Trump who featured Nigel Farage, the champion of the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign, at a Mississippi stadium rally and Trump who became the American embodiment of that sentiment. “It was basically the game plan from the very first day I arrived,” says Bannon.
Trump’s election represents a jarring realignment of American politics. It delivered a rebuke to GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, even as it cast Democrats into the wilderness. It could render large swaths of the GOP agenda inoperative. But we really don’t know yet.
Long before election night, Trump’s data operatives, in particular those contracted from Cambridge Analytica, understood that his voters were different. And to better understand how they differed from Ryan-style Republicans, they set off to study them.
The firm called these Trump supporters “disenfranchised new Republicans”: younger than traditional party loyalists and less likely to live in metropolitan areas. They share Bannon’s populist spirit and care more than other Republicans about three big issues: law and order, immigration, and wages.
They also harbored a deep contempt for the reigning political establishment in both parties, along with a desire to return the country to happier times. Trump was the key that fit in this lock. “Trump is fundamentally a populist,” says Bannon. “He’s the leader of a populist uprising. But he’s also an enormously successful entrepreneur who succeeded in real estate, media, and branding.” The voters who elected Trump, he says, wish to partake in this story of American success but not destroy the American system of government. “This is not the French Revolution,” says Bannon. “They destroyed the basic institutions of their society and changed their form of government. What Trump represents is a restoration—a restoration of true American capitalism and a revolution against state-sponsored socialism. Elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans.”
According to Cambridge’s analysis, these Trump backers subordinate the standard conservative Republican priorities, especially social and cultural issues such as abortion and guns, which Trump largely ignored during the campaign, and cutting Social Security and Medicare spending, which he vowed to preserve. Trump got elected by outlining a worldview that reflects these priorities—even though many of them are sharply at odds with those of Ryan and the Republican leaders that Trump has displaced.
Trump’s primary challenge as president, since he’ll need congressional support, will be to synthesize his brand of populist Republicanism with the diminished, yet still powerful, version espoused by leaders like Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. One way to do this may be with a kind of free-market capitalism to which many conservatives pay lip service but rarely do much to bring about. “Those elites [Trump rails against] are represented in Washington by a bevy of lobbyists,” says Bannon. “Crony capitalism has gotten out of control. Trump saw this. The American people saw this. And they have risen up to smash it. Ordinary people want to make sure we have an evenhanded system that’s transparent and accountable and takes their interests into mind. And they want to share in the rewards.”
Throughout October, the surge of early ballots from these voters grew so strong that Oczkowski’s team members decided to reweight their surveys to account for the possibility that the electorate might look much different than even they had imagined. Part of it, Oczkowski concedes, was wishful thinking—an attempt to conjure up an electorate that would favor his candidate just enough to illuminate a plausible path to victory. “Older white voters were returning early ballots at an enormous clip,” he says. “So either older people were voting early because of enthusiasm or this was a trend that would carry through to election night.”
After adjusting their models in late October, Trump’s numbers immediately shot up across the Rust Belt—2 points in Michigan, 2.5 points in Pennsylvania. Suddenly, the Battleground Optimizer showed a way to win.
The trend did, indeed, materialize at the polls. Trump made some of his biggest gains over Mitt Romney’s performance in small Midwestern counties, which allowed him to sweep Rust Belt states that hadn’t voted Republican since the 1980s. And on election night, in the critical state of Florida—the key to any Trump path to 270 electoral votes—the rural vote spiked 10 percentage points higher than the campaign’s optimistic scenarios had assumed. Taken as a whole, Trump’s electoral map represents a powerful, largely rural backlash against a country where wealth and power have increasingly accrued to the cities.
“No one could have anticipated the exceptional concentration of wealth and talent in just a handful of urban centers. Class is etched into location, and the way location defines your economic opportunities—but the brew is combustible,” says Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. “It’s really the bypassing of a way of life, and they know it. And no one is standing up for them.”
Trump did. And in doing so, he appealed to some people who were once Democrats or descended from New Deal Democratic families. In Rust Belt strongholds like Mahoning County, Ohio, these voters would explain that Trump alone seemed to register their complaints in a political world that was otherwise deaf to their concerns. “These were disenfranchised voters who no party has spoken to for several elections,” says Oczkowski.
Back in May, speaking to Bloomberg Businessweek about how he intended to remake the Republican Party, Trump laid out precisely the message that would activate these voters in November. “Five, 10 years from now—[it will be a] different party,” he said. “You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry. What I want to do, I think cutting Social Security is a big mistake for the Republican Party. And I know it’s a big part of the budget. Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it [at all].”
Having sent Trump to the White House, this newly activated coalition of white rural voters will now expect him to deliver on their priorities. Trump is, of course, a wildly unlikely tribune for rural America. He’ll be the first president since Richard Nixon to live in a high-rise when elected. His closest tie to the agricultural economy is Trump Winery. And the economic policy he espoused most vigorously was his desire for more infrastructure spending, which he illustrated in strikingly metropolitan (and luxurious) terms. “You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, LAX, and you come in from Dubai, China—you see these incredible airports, and you land, we’ve become a third-world country,” he said this fall.
It remains a mystery how Trump will govern. No president in living memory has as little political experience or has put forward fewer details of the policies he intends to pursue. But it’s possible to see in Trump’s coalition of voters and the issues they care about the broad contours of a new Republican politics that’s more populist, more rural in its character (and less beholden to Wall Street), and oriented toward a class of Americans—not all of them conservatives or even Republicans—whose concerns weren’t addressed by the Democratic and Republican parties that both crumbled on Nov. 8.