How big data got the better of Donald Trump

The CEO of Cambridge Analytica reveals how his company's use of big data helped Ted Cruz snatch victory from Trump in the Iowa primary

From a marketing perspective, the political and commercial spaces are often viewed in silos. But the challenges for marketers in both spheres are increasingly similar, as are the opportunities facing them in the current marketplace.

Just as people tended to cast their votes based on their family and neighbours’ political allegiances and – in Britain in particular — their place in the class system, so too were loyalties to consumer brands fairly ingrained. If your parents always voted Labour and only bought Hovis bread, then chances were you would do the same.

But for some time now traditional loyalties to political parties and brands have been breaking down, and – buoyed by the availability of information and a plethora of options available on the internet – people are now more willing than ever to shop around. From the ashes of a fairly predictable and homogenous public has emerged a new class of dynamic, informed and individualistic voters/consumers who expect messages from politicians and brands to speak to them directly.

Communicating directly with voters is how Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, pulled off a stunning victory over bombastic billionaire Donald Trump in the Iowa Republican caucus earlier this month. The pollsters had Trump in the lead for weeks, but Cruz had the advantage of knowing his target audiences better than any of the other candidates.

Cambridge Analytica (or SCL Group as we’re known in Europe), worked with the campaign for over a year to develop predictive data models in order to identify, engage, persuade and turnout voters for Cruz. Using online, phone and in-person surveys combined with a slew of other data sets, our team of data scientists, psychologists and political consultants created models that allowed the campaign to map the electorate based on ideology, demographics, religiosity, opinions on key issues and personality.

Predictive analytics
From this, CA was able to provide the campaign with predictive analytics based on more than 5,000 data points on every voter in the United States. From there, CA’s team of political consultants and psychologists guided the campaign on what to say and how to say it to specific groups of voters.

The degree of granularity that can be achieved when you have the right data and the tactical operation to put it into action is incredible. For example, our issues model identified that there was a small pocket of voters in Iowa who felt strongly that citizens should be required by law to show photo ID at polling stations.

Leveraging our other data models, we were able to advise the campaign on how to approach this issue with specific individuals based on their unique profiles in order to use this relatively niche issue as a political pressure point to motivate them to go out and vote for Cruz. For people in the ‘Temperamental’ personality group, who tend to dislike commitment, messaging on the issue should take the line that showing your ID to vote is "as easy as buying a case of beer". Whereas the right message for people in the ‘Stoic Traditionalist’ group, who have strongly held conventional views, is that showing your ID in order to vote is simply part of the privilege of living in a democracy.

Using CA’s creative guidance and voter targeting, the campaign created Facebook ads, phone scripts and even messages for door-to-door canvassers to communicate with the right voters in the right way on this issue.

Ultimately, what made the difference in Iowa was that Senator Cruz used data analytics to gain an in-depth understanding of Iowa voters, and then used every communication tool at his disposal to talk to them directly about things they really cared about. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was delivering the same message to an indistinguishable mass of voters who he didn’t really understand – and the rest is history.

Recently, Cambridge Analytica has teamed up with Leave.EU — the UK’s largest group advocating for a British exit (or ‘Brexit’) from the European Union – to help them better understand and communicate with UK voters. We have already helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign by ensuring the right messages are getting to the right voters online, and the campaign’s Facebook page is growing in support to the tune of about 3,000 people per day.

All of which shows that whether you are trying to reach out to a voter, change hearts and minds about Britain’s EU membership, or move product, the more you know about your target audience, the better you will be able to engage, persuade and motivate them to act.

Alexander Nix is  CEO of SCL Group (Cambridge Analytica in the US).

This article first appeared on

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free