Donald Trump’s digital advantage may be freaking out Democratic strategists, but what should worry everyone is the technology itself. What makes Trump’s operation so formidable is not so much his investment in digital or any particular architecture that he’s built. It’s more that he’s able to take advantage of monitoring people through their cells phones.
To be clear, the Democrats can and will do the exact same thing. The problem isn’t the candidate but the capability.
Thomas Edsall discusses this in a piece for the New York Times. It begins with geofencing, a practice that involves tracking every cell phone that enters a predefined area, like a church or MAGA rally. Armed with these phone numbers, identities can be sussed out from other commercial databases, and then people can be sorted by how frequently they vote, their party registration (if any), and all manner of personal information:
If you attend an evangelical or a Catholic Church, a women’s rights march or a political rally of any kind, especially in a seriously contested state, the odds are that your cellphone ID number, home address, partisan affiliation and the identifying information of the people around you will be provided by geofencing marketers to campaigns, lobbyists and other interest groups…
…The data generally provides information about individual users’ day-to-day activities and preferences: Where they shop; What they do for fun; What other apps they use, for how long, and what they do in those apps; Where they live; Where they work; With whom they associate.
You might think that Donald Trump holds political rallies simply because he enjoys the adulation, but that’s not the real purpose. His campaign manager Brad Pascale recently boasted about the information he harvests from MAGA rallies:
Out of more than 20,000 identified voters who came to a recent Trump rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 57.9 percent did not have a history of voting for Republicans. Remarkably, 4,413 attendees didn’t even vote in the last election — a clear indication that President Trump is energizing Americans who were previously not engaged in politics…
…Nearly 22 percent of identified supporters at President Trump’s rally in Toledo, Ohio, were Democrats, and another 21 percent were independents. An astounding 15 percent of identified voters who saw the president speak in Battle Creek, Michigan, has not voted in any of the last four elections. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, just over 20 percent of identified voters at the rally were Democrats, and 18 percent were nonwhite.
It’s astonishing that the Trump campaign can so easily get this level of insight about the people who attend their rallies, but the Democratic candidates can do the same thing, and they really ought to be doing it if they want to compete on an even playing field.
You might think that you can just anonymously attend a church service or political rally, but that’s no longer true if you bring your cell phone. There are some steps you can take to make it more difficult to track your online activities or what apps you use, but they’re probably insufficient to safeguard your privacy. The campaigns will know where you’ve been and they’ll be able to target you with political advertising designed just for you.
Trump has been aggressively using this capability throughout his whole first term, which may help in part explain why he’s able to maintain such a high floor in his approval numbers. More importantly, he now has a big advantage over whomever winds up running against him in the general election.
The American people never meaningfully consented to this invasion of their privacy and I don’t think they like the idea of being tracked or being manipulated through targeted advertising. I think perhaps in the future, this could become a potent political issue, with voters rewarding candidates who promise to regulate this industry so that folks can go to church without the government watching.