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It’s Wishful Thinking to Blame Trump’s Win on Cambridge Analytics

Photo by Jason Eppink | CC BY 2.0

Many people who hate and fear Donald Trump feel that only political black magic or some form of trickery can explain his election as US President. They convince themselves that we are the victims of a dark conspiracy rather than that the world we live in is changing, and changing for the worse.

Cambridge Analytica has now joined Russia at the top of a list of conspirators who may have helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is satisfactory for Democrats as it shows that they ought to have won, and delegitimises Trump’s mandate.

In the Russian and Cambridge Analytica scandals, dodgy characters abound who claim to have a direct line to Putin or Trump, or to have secret information about political opponents or a unique method of swaying the voting intentions of millions of Americans. The most doubtful evidence is treated as credible.

The dossier by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, about Trump’s romps in Moscow, struck me when I first read it as hilarious but entirely unbelievable. The US media thought the same when this document was first being hawked around Washington before the election, and refused to publish it. It was only after Trump was elected that that they and the US security agencies claimed to find it in any way credible.

Much of what Cambridge Analytica claimed to be able to do for its clients has an exaggerated ring to it. As with the Steele dossier, several of the Cambridge Analytica documents are unintentionally funny, such as a letter from Aleksandr Kogan, the Russian-American academic researcher, suggesting that finding out if people used crossbows or believed in paganism would be useful traits on which to focus.

We are told that Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users have been “harvested” (a good menacing word in this context, suggesting that the poor old users are being chopped off at the ankles), and that information so garnered could be fed into the Trump campaign to put him over the top on election day. In reality, information gathered from such a large number of people is too generalised or too obvious to be of much use.

What is lacking in these scandals is much real evidence that Russian “meddling” or Cambridge Analytica “harvesting” – supposing all these tales are true – really did much to determine the outcome of the US election. Keep in mind that many very astute and experienced American politicians, backed by billions of dollars, regularly try and fail to decide who will hold political office in the US.

It simply is not very likely that the Kremlin – having shown extraordinary foresight in seeing that Trump stood a chance when nobody else did – was able to exercise significant influence on the US polls. Likewise, for all its bombastic sales pitch, Cambridge Analytica was really a very small player in the e-campaign.

The Russian “meddling” story (again, note the careful choice of words, because “meddling” avoids any claim that the Russian actions had any impact) and the Cambridge Analytica saga are essentially conspiracy theories. They may damage those targeted such as Trump, but they also do harm to his opponents because it means that they do not look deeply enough into the real reasons for their defeat in 2016, or do enough to prevent it happening again.

Since Clinton lost the election by less than 1 per cent of the vote in the crucial swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, almost anything that happened in the campaign can be portrayed as decisive. But there are plenty of common-sense reasons for her defeat which are now being submerged and forgotten, as the Democrats and a largely sympathetic media look to Russian plots and such like to show that Trump won the election unfairly.

It is worth looking again at Hillary Clinton’s run-for-office in 2016 to take a more rational view of why she unexpectedly lost. A good place to start is Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, which was published a year ago and is based on interviews with senior campaign staffers.

Ironically, the Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook based his approach on a similar sort of analysis of vast quantities of data about voters that Cambridge Analytica claimed it could use to great effect.

Mook’s conviction that this data was a sure guide to where to invest the Democrats’ best efforts had disastrous consequences, even though Clinton outspent Trump by 2 to 1. For instance, she did not campaign in Wisconsin after winning the nomination, because her election team thought she was bound to win there. She put too little effort into campaigning in Michigan, though her weakness there was underlined there in March when she lost the primary to Bernie Sanders.

Traditional tools of electioneering such as polls and door-to-door canvassing were discounted by Mook, who was absorbed by his own analytical model of how the election was going. In major swing states, the book says that “he declined to use pollsters to track voter preferences in the final three weeks of the campaign”.

Clinton carried a lot of political baggage because she had been demonised by the Republicans for 25 years. She had bad lluck, such the decision of the FBI director, James Comey, to send a letter to Congress about her emails two weeks before the election – but Trump somehow managed to survive even worse disasters, such as boasting of how he groped women.

Opponents of Trump tend to underestimate him because they are convinced that his faults are so evident that he will implode when the electorate find him out. Somehow they never do, or at least not those parts of the electorate which votes for him.

The very scandals that Trump’s critics believe will sink him have enabled him dominate the news agenda in a way no American politician has ever done before. The New York Times and CNN may detest him, but they devote an extraordinary proportion of their news output to covering his every action.

The accusation that the Kremlin and companies like Cambridge Analytica put Trump in the White House may do him damage. But I suspect that the damage will mostly be among people who never liked him and would never vote for him.

Perhaps the one thing would have lost Trump the election is if his campaign had truly relied on Cambridge Analytica’s data about the political proclivities of pagan crossbow enthusiasts.

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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