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Skeptical Of Tech, Donald Trump Rejects Big Data's Role In Politics


I'm Ari Shapiro, and it's time for All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: The presidential campaign edition. Let's take a look at how the candidates are handling themselves online. First, if you want to get out the vote, you need a sophisticated data operation. That's been the common thinking over the last couple of decades anyway. Yet here, as in so many facets of the campaign, it appears Donald Trump is breaking the rules. NPR's Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: There's no question that Donald Trump is a little leery of technology. Talking about his business empire on the campaign trail, he made a point to say he built real things - office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes.


DONALD TRUMP: And it's not the computer stuff or the Internet stuff. You know, you open it - and you open a love site, and it's worth $700 million. It's day one, and these kids never saw anything like it.

DETROW: Trump once told the deposition he doesn't do the email thing. There are pictures of him reading printed out versions of websites. And Silicon Valley - he told that Racine, Wis., crowd that he just doesn't get it.


TRUMP: You know, they come up to meet me - a lot of the guys from Silicon - and they're wearing undershirts. I could tell you a story. Some of the biggest in the world - they'll come in on rollerskates.

DETROW: But when Trump told the Associated Press recently that campaign data operations are overrated and that he doesn't plan on spending much money on them in the general election, well, that got a lot of political people's attention. After all, most presidential campaigns base every decision on their big databases of information about voters and models of what they think the electorate will look like.

DANIEL KREISS: Helping campaigns figure out which voters to contact, what to say, how best to reach them, how to efficiently by television and digital advertising to reach groups of voters, how to test messages.

DETROW: Daniel Kreiss is a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. He's written two books on how presidential campaigns have tracked down, processed and analyzed data about voters. The new norm is for campaigns to try and learn everything they can about voters, information like when they've shown up at the polls and when they go to rallies. In fact, the Republican National Committee has spent years trying to beef up its data operations.

KATIE WALSH: What we want to make sure is that everyone running with an R after their name has access to the best data they can get their hands on.

DETROW: RNC Chief of Staff Katie Walsh says nearly 60 Republican staffers will be working on data operations for Trump and other Republicans this fall. And Trump says he plans to rely on the party for a lot of that campaign infrastructure.


TRUMP: The RNC's been doing it for many years. Reince has really upped it and all over the country they have very good people, and part of the benefit is we get to use those people.

DETROW: Still, outsourcing most of that work to the party and not the campaign itself - it's highly unusual. But maybe Trump doesn't need to use all this advanced modeling to track down voters. After all, he hardly spend any money on television ads compared to Republican opponents. He didn't even have a pollster during the primaries. And Trump has shown he can dominate the national conversation through a single tweet.


DAVID MUIR: Big news in politics this morning. Donald Trump, of course, sparking that firestorm with his tweet about Cinco de Mayo.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Today, his Cinco de Mayo tweet blew up the internet.


ERIN BURNETT: When you hear tweet and your father, I know you don't know whether to laugh or cry or what. But here he is. It's a pic of him eating a taco bowl.

DETROW: Zignal Labs is a company measuring online conversation about the election this year. Pete Eskew heads up its East Coast operations. He had been off-line for a bit the day Trump tweeted his infamous taco pic. He walked into the room where Zignal monitors what's happening on Twitter and elsewhere and saw the charts going haywire.

PETE ESKEW: The total mentions chart spiked off the roof as if it were Super Bowl Sunday or NFL draft day or the night of the election itself.

DETROW: Right now Zignal's metrics show that if you add up all the online talk about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it still falls short of Donald Trump. Eskew says there are only two types of moments where another candidate has commanded more online chatter than Trump this year.

ESKEW: The only time they would beat him, again, was when they either dropped out or picked a fight with him.


DETROW: So who knows? Maybe Trump can keep riding all this free publicity all the way to the White House. But Republicans worry that without aggressive voter targeting operations from the top of the ticket, down ballot candidates may suffer. After all, none of them can control the news cycle with a single tweet. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.