Most presidential campaigns spend their time and money appealing to people who vote regularly in elections. Not Donald Trump. According to a Trump campaign memo obtained by FiveThirtyEight, the campaign pursued a highly unorthodox strategy of courting unlikely voters during the primaries, focusing on people who rarely participate in GOP primary elections. The campaign relied on free media, including Trump’s frequent TV appearances, to turn out regular voters, according to the memo.
But survey and voter data shows that Trump won the Republican nomination thanks in large part to Republicans who typically vote in general elections, not by bringing people entirely disconnected from the electoral process to the polls. As Trump heads into the general election, the campaign’s thinking during the primaries, and the ad-hoc process by which it built an operation to target and reach out to voters using data, may offer clues about how it will approach voter turnout in the fall. Trump’s primary success does not necessarily mean that he can win the general election with a similar strategy.
“Based on an internal analysis of our own modeling data and third-party research, and considering the exceptionalism of our candidate, I advise that we put one-hundred percent of our organizational effort into enfranchising the conventionally low propensity voters that support our candidate,” the memo from former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard begins.
It goes on to describe a “persistent state of disenfranchisement” for low-propensity voters and suggests that pursuing them while Trump’s opponents fight over “the same heavily tilled soil” of likely voters would be to the campaign’s ultimate advantage. “An unprecedented targeting strategy must be in sync with this unprecedented campaign,” the memo concludes.
The memo is dated Jan. 14, two weeks before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Braynard said in an interview that the low-propensity voter turnout strategy was in place at least through the Wisconsin primary, which took place on April 5. Braynard left the campaign around that time.
The Trump campaign declined to comment on the record about the memo.
Stuart Jolly, who previously served as the Trump campaign’s national field director and is now an adviser to the pro-Trump Great America PAC, said that at first, he thought the low-propensity voter strategy “was a gamble.” But, he said, the plan did seem to jibe with what he was seeing of Trump supporters at stadium rallies. “They had been left behind educationally and job-wise and hadn’t voted in a while,” Jolly said. “It wasn’t rocket science: We were going after people who really hadn’t voted. They came out in droves; I didn’t realize there were that many.”
“We were never afraid to try things,” said Chuck Laudner, who formerly ran Trump’s Iowa operation. “It was going to be different from day one; it was constantly feeling around.” Launder said that in Iowa, the Trump campaign pursued traditional outreach efforts to Republican voters, in addition to the low-propensity voter efforts outlined in the memo.
Braynard described coming into a near-nonexistent campaign data operation when he joined in the fall of 2015, after initially working as a volunteer. Over the months, he said, he worked to significantly build the data team into a more functional, though still-barebones, outfit. Braynard worked in the past for the Republican National Committee and for Republican pollster Frank Luntz but said he is far from a seasoned insider operative. “I was always on the outside of many campaigns, and this opportunity from the Trump campaign was really a blessing,” he said. “I’ve never really quite been given that chance.”
Once on the inside of Trump Tower, he began building a data operation that would eventually be referred to as “Trump Tech” within the campaign. “I had this chart on the wall of the things that I had to get accomplished, and one step was a prerequisite for another step, for another step, for another step,” Braynard said.
He helped the campaign start virtually from scratch, Braynard said, setting up contracts with NationBuilder, a digital organizing platform that helps campaigns communicate with supporters and volunteers, and the political data firm L2 and engaging a data-entry firm to help log the contact information that was piling up in paper form from Trump’s many rallies and field offices. Braynard said the campaign hadn’t capitalized on the names and emails it had gathered through Eventbrite, an online event-planning platform. “So the first thing I did is I designed and got approved a volunteer form on our website,” he said. “And then we just sent out repeated e-mails to that list saying, ‘Hey, you want to help the campaign? Fill out this form.’”
Running Trump Tech became a sprawling, demanding job. Braynard said he would order the narcolepsy drug Modafinil and go on “five-day benders” without sleep. “Corey’s slogan was ‘do your job,’” he said of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “The challenge was I was never really sure what my job was, and it just seemed to keep expanding.”
Through CNN, where he is now a paid commentator, Lewandowksi declined to comment for this story.
The Trump campaign has declined to comment on its data operation in the past, and though the operation was reported on during the primary campaign, Braynard’s hiring was never officially announced. This reflected the campaign’s ethos of working outside the typical norms of the political system.
“Cruz was out there taking interviews and letting them write full-page interviews about data,” Jolly said. “We focused on results, touching voters — we didn’t want the other side to know what we were doing. We wanted to sneak up on them and blast them and beat them at their own game.”
Braynard said that top campaign officials weren’t overly interested in the data operation, an anomalous way of thinking in the modern world of campaigning. Braynard said they seemed to trust that he had the task in hand and that “they had other things to worry about.” Sometimes “there was a big overreaction,” though, if a hiccup occurred with one of the campaign’s platforms.
In an effort to more accurately discern which potential voters Trump would be most likely to appeal to, Braynard commissioned polls — even though his candidate had previously denied the need for such internal data work. “I don’t have pollsters,” Trump said on “Meet the Press” in August of 2015. “I don’t want to waste money on pollsters. I don’t want to be unreal. I want to be me.” Braynard used voter issue models formulated by the data firm HaystaqDNA and sold by L2 to help refine his sense for who a likely Trump voter might be, conducting his own analysis to determine which characteristics made people likely to support Trump.
“These are voters who do not think ISIS can be defeated with hashtags and do not think that the solution to BLM [Black Lives Matter] murdering cops is for cops to do a better job listening,” Braynard said. “Pat Buchanan, I think, accurately described these people as conservatives of the heart — these are law and order people who are rich in the wisdom of the Old Testament.”
With Haystaq, Braynard said he was able to determine with up to 80 percent likelihood whether or not a person was a Trump voter. Once the campaign had identified that pool of voters, it pursued the low-propensity number among them with intensified phone contact and information about where and when to vote.
But the low-propensity turnout model pursued by the campaign has its skeptics.
“I would say that’s the riskiest strategy that you could have as a campaign,” said Daniel Kreiss, who studies campaigns and technology at the University of North Carolina.
“It’s crazy,” said one Republican strategist who has worked on national campaigns but declined to speak on the record for fear of upsetting the Trump organization. The campaign might have believed that its success in the primaries was due to turning out nontraditional voters, the strategist continued, “but they were a communications operation,” a reference to Trump’s unprecedented dominance of TV and social media news cycles. “The message trumps the turnout,” the strategist said.
Indeed, according to data from SurveyMonkey and Catalist based on 14 early primary states, 88 percent of those who voted for Trump in the primary voted in the 2012 presidential election, suggesting that his supporters were more or less standard Republican voters (at least in general elections for president; some may have been first-time participants in this year’s Republican primary). Eighty-eight percent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary supporters turned out in the 2012 general election as well. The Trump campaign did, however, have reasons for going after voters who hadn’t participated in Republican primaries before — primary season analysis showed Trump with the support of registered Democrats who leaned toward Republicans, a slice of the electorate that has been characterized as feeling alienated from both parties in recent years.
Kreiss pointed out that there is some precedent for campaigns seeking to expand the electorate. “Obama in ’08 was looking to reach low-propensity youth and African-American voters in key states,” he said. “But that happened in conjunction with a strategy to identify people who regularly turned out.”
The Trump campaign may be shifting toward that kind of hybrid approach for the general election, with the campaign continuing to court low-propensity voters, along with regular general election voters who might not like Trump but who are equally if not more skeptical of Clinton. The campaign wouldn’t comment about their current strategy. But a sign that the Trump campaign was turning its eyes toward incorporating a more orthodox general election strategy was the hiring of pollster Tony Fabrizio in May.
“I think the strategy is changing a lot to putting the focus on Hillary’s problems and making the election about national security,” said Chasen Campbell, vice president of client strategy at Harris Media. Harris Media, an Austin-based digital public affairs firm, was engaged for a time this summer by the Trump campaign, although Campbell would not comment on the firm’s specific involvement with the campaign.
“For him, I think it’s all fundraising now,” Campbell said of Trump’s operation heading into the general election. More dollars would allow the Trump campaign “to fund maybe a larger digital blast towards the end, to fund a ground effort later in the game,” Campbell said. “They definitely have to be a lot more efficient with how they spend their money.” The campaign announced Wednesday that it, along with the Republican National Committee, had raised $82 million in July, a huge leap in Trump’s fundraising efforts, putting his campaign close to on pace with Clinton’s fundraising.
Even if the campaign is successful in its pursuit of low-propensity voters, some worry that turning out Trump supporters could adversely affect down-ballot races. “The Trump model is almost like they’ve broken the party turnout model,” the Republican strategist said. “He’s literally turning out people that are going to vote against their candidates.”
Braynard, for one, will be watching the Trump experiment unfold from the sidelines. For now, his career path is wholly divergent from his previous one; Braynard will soon be starting an MFA in creative writing. He declined to talk on the record about the details of his departure but remained firm in his support of Trump’s vision: “It’s regrettable to me that I couldn’t continue with the campaign. But the team I built, the technology I put together, and the strategy I developed continue to carry the candidate towards victory, and I’m very grateful for being able to play a role in that.”