Data Firm Says ‘Secret Sauce’ Aided Trump; Many Scoff
Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, at the Concordia Summit for public-private business partnerships in New York in September. The firm claimed to have developed psychographic profiles that could predict the political leanings of every American adult. Credit Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Standing before political and business leaders in New York last fall, Alexander Nix promised a revolution.
Many companies compete in the market for political microtargeting, using huge data sets and sophisticated software to identify and persuade voters. But Mr. Nix’s little-known firm, Cambridge Analytica, claimed to have developed something unique: “psychographic” profiles that could predict the personality and hidden political leanings of every American adult.
“Of the two candidates left in the election, one of them is using these technologies,” Mr. Nix said, referring to Donald J. Trump .
Capitalizing on its work for the man who is now president, Cambridge has pitched potential clients in the United States ranging from MasterCard and the New York Yankees to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ahead of this year’s elections in Europe, Mr. Nix is promoting the four-year-old United States-based company abroad, too.
Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board.
But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — “our secret sauce,” Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.
Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign. The technology — prominently featured in the firm’s sales materials and in media reports that cast Cambridge as a master of the dark campaign arts — remains unproved, according to former employees and Republicans familiar with the firm’s work.
“They’ve got a lot of really smart people,” said Brent Seaborn, managing partner of TargetPoint, a rival business that also provided voter data to the Trump campaign. “But it’s not as easy as it looks to transition from being excellent at one thing and bringing it into politics. I think there’s a big question about whether we think psychographic profiling even works.”
At stake are not merely bragging rights, but also an emerging science that many believe could reshape American politics and commerce. Big data companies already know your age, income, favorite cereal and when you last voted. But the company that can perfect psychological targeting could offer far more potent tools: the ability to manipulate behavior by understanding how someone thinks and what he or she fears.
A voter deemed neurotic might be shown a gun-rights commercial featuring burglars breaking into a home, rather than a defense of the Second Amendment; political ads warning of the dangers posed by the Islamic State could be targeted directly at voters prone to anxiety, rather than wasted on those identified as optimistic.
“You can do things that you would not have dreamt of before,” said Alexander Polonsky, chief data scientist at Bloom, a consulting firm that offers “emotion analysis” of social networks and has worked with the center-right Republican Party in France.
“It goes beyond sharing information,” he added. “It’s sharing the thinking and the feeling behind this information, and that’s extremely powerful.”
Both conservatives and liberals are eager to harness that power. In Washington, some Democratic operatives are scrambling to develop personality-profiling capabilities of their own. But even as Cambridge seeks to expand its business among conservative groups, questions about its performance have soured many Republicans in Mr. Trump’s orbit.
Cambridge is no longer in contention to work for Mr. Trump at the Republican National Committee. a company spokesman confirmed, nor is it working for America First Policies, a new nonprofit formed to help advance the president’s agenda.
In recent months, the value of Cambridge’s technology has been debated by technology experts and in some media accounts. But Cambridge officials, in recent interviews, defended the company’s record during the 2016 election, saying its data analysis helped Mr. Trump energize critical support in the Rust Belt. Mr. Nix said the firm had conducted tens of thousands of polls for Mr. Trump, helping guide his message and identify issues that mattered to voters.
But when asked to name a single race where the firm’s flagship product had been critical to victory, Mr. Nix declined.
“We bake a cake, it’s got 10 ingredients in it. Psychographics is one of them,” he said. “It’s very difficult to isolate exactly what the impact of that ingredient is.”
Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s senior White House counselor, has served as a Cambridge corporate officer. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Drawn to America
Cambridge’s parent company, the London-based Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, has a long record of trying to understand and influence behavior. Founded in 1993 by a former British adman, the firm has worked for companies and candidates around the world, as well as for government and military clients. SCL has studied Pakistani jihadists for the British government and provided intelligence assessments for American defense contractors in Iran, Libya and Syria, according to company documents obtained by The New York Times.
“Their approach was seen as serious and focused,” said Mark Laity, chief of strategic communications at NATO’s military headquarters in Europe, who has taken part in NATO-affiliated conferences where SCL has made presentations.
In recent years, the company has moved to exploit the revolution in big data to predict human behavior more precisely, working with scientists from the Cambridge University Psychometrics Center. The United States represented a critical new market. Europe has strict privacy protections that limit the use of personal information, but America is more lightly regulated, allowing the sale of huge troves of consumer data to any company or candidate who can afford them.
In 2013, Cambridge Analytica was created as SCL’s American operation, and the two companies today share many of their roughly 200 employees, several top executives, and offices in New York and Washington.
To develop its profiling system, Cambridge conducts detailed psychological surveys — by phone and online — of tens of thousands of people, differentiating them by five traits, a model widely used by behavioral researchers.
Uniquely, the company claims to be able to extrapolate those findings to millions of other people it has not surveyed, assigning them one of 32 distinct personality types. Cambridge then blends those profiles with commercial data and voting histories, revealing “hidden voter trends and behavioral triggers,” according to a 2016 company brochure.
Those profiles, in turn, would allow campaigns to customize advertising, direct-mail slogans and door-knocking scripts, each calibrated to prod the targeted voter toward — or away from — a candidate.
The promise of psychometrics appealed to Mr. Mercer, a computer scientist who made a fortune helping to lead Renaissance Technologies, a Long Island-based hedge fund. Mr. Mercer and his daughter Rebekah presided over a growing political empire that included millions of dollars in contributions to conservative groups and a stake in Breitbart, whose nationalist and racially antagonistic content prefigured Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
The billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump supporter, is the principal owner of Cambridge Analytica. Credit Andrew Toth/Getty Images
Mr. Mercer became Cambridge’s principal investor, according to two former employees. (Like several others interviewed for this article, they spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements and the threat of lawsuits.) Mr. Bannon, the family’s political guru, also advised the company and served as vice president of its board, according to Delaware public records.
Mr. Mercer has never spoken publicly about his policy views in depth, but his giving is eclectic: He has financed anti-Clinton documentaries, right-wing media watchdogs, libertarian think tanks and both Senator Ted Cruz, a religious conservative, and Mr. Trump, a thrice-married nationalist.
“The genius here is Bob, and the billionaire in this is Bob, and the person with the extreme views of how the world should be is Bob,” said David Magerman, a Renaissance research scientist who was recently suspended after criticizing his boss’s support for Mr. Trump.
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