The Secret Behind Trump’s Comically Bad Digital Campaign?

Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

Here’s our list of takeaways for Donald Trump’s July FEC report which came out over the weekend. But there’s one part of the story I wanted to drill a bit deeper on – in part because it shows what a mess Trump’s campaign remains but even more because it illustrates a very basic Trump MO: friendship and loyalty over experience and competence.

The issue is who’s doing Trump’s digital work.

Brad Parscale is the Trump campaign’s Digital Director. He appears to be in charge of everything from site design to email lists, digital ad placement, targeting, data mining, the whole bit. He’s running that business through the company he co-owns and co-founded, Giles-Parscale. In July, the campaign paid the company $8.4 million.

That might sound like self-dealing. But that part is completely standard practice in political campaigns. Set aside whether that’s a good way for campaigns to run; that part is 100% standard.

The real story is the company itself. Giles-Parscale is a relatively small San Antonio based firm which does web design, i.e., they build websites. They seem to do it pretty well. Through some aggressive networking, Parscale got some business with big New York City real estate firms. He came to Trump’s attention and from there he did various projects for the Trump organization. They ranged from sites for buildings, one of Trump’s real estate operations and even Trump’s winery. He seems to have gone a good job and at more competitive prices than New York firms.The Trump-Parscale relationship began in 2011.

But here’s the key: Giles-Parscale appears never to have worked in politics and from what I can tell has zero experience in campaign email marketing (hitting you up for cash via email), ad placement and targeting, data-mining etc. Now, smart, ambitious people who know the web can pick things up pretty quickly. But these are pretty technical lines of work, especially in the post-2008 political world. Indeed, according to a local business journal, just two months ago, the company was kicking off a massive hiring spree to get the necessary people on board in time for the fall election. They planned to add up to a 100 new employees to its staff of 60 people. “The new workers will range from data scientists to web designers but also accounting, administration and marketing professionals,” reported The San Antonio Business Journal on June 14th.

Those hires are likely to staff up in all the areas where the company has no institutional experience or staff. Good idea! But starting in June to hire 100 people to integrate into a 60 person company to be ready to hit the ground running in August is a pretty tall proposition, some would say an almost ridiculous one.

Parscale is refreshingly candid about his improbable role as the Digital Director for a major party presidential campaign. “Our company provides [the campaign] an array of digital services, everything from email marketing to web development and other types of digital strategies. The opportunity to work on a presidential campaign is like designing for the Super Bowl.”

A passage from a profile in Wired from last week captures some of the flavor of the relationship …

Parscale, who grew up in Kansas, says he sees a lot of himself in the man he calls “Mr. Trump.” For starters, like Trump, he’s a political novice who has built a professional reputation for himself in Texas but has never worked in Washington. “Brad is a non-traditional guy, and he’s good for a non-traditional campaign,” says Vincent Harris, a Republican digital strategist who briefly worked for Trump’s campaign.

But more than that, Parscale feels his story parallels Trump’s rise in business. Parscale started out with a small investment in 2004. (Parscale’s was his own $500. Trump’s was his father’s $1 million). He began by cold-calling local clients but soon graduated to major contracts with the likes of the Trump Organization, which led to gigs building websites for Trump Winery and the Eric Trump Foundation. Now he’s managing multi-million dollar advertising budgets for perhaps the most-watched man in the world.

In conversation, Parscale expresses fierce loyalty for his controversial boss. He says Trump gave “a farm boy from Kansas” a chance. “When I was successful, he continued to reward me over and over again, because I worked hard and produced success,” he says.

As noted, Parscale appears to be in charge of email small donor work (the campaign’s “email marketing”), digital ad targeting, data mining and more.

Now, let’s remember: The Trump campaign has had a comical running story about spamming foreign parliamentarians with cash asks to take on “Crooked Hillary” and at least started with massive and totally unprecedented spam problems.

Their ad targeting also seems to leave a lot to be desired.

My Facebook profile identifies me as a Jew, who lives in Lower Manhattan, identifies as liberal and has a PhD. Admittedly, the fact that I’m a 47 year old white man might suggest I’m at least Trump-curious. But there’s more than enough in the toplines of my profile to say otherwise. A deeper dive into the psychographic profile would show I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan and am a reasonably prominent political commentator known for his liberal politics views. In other words, I’m not remotely a good mark for Trump. And yet my Facebook page is hit basically nonstop with Trump ads offering me a special special deal on a Gold Trump Campaign card at a new low low price.

I’ve also noticed that the Trump campaign has been running a very strong saturation of Trump ads on TPM through third party networks. (They’ll probably stop now so we’ll loose a little money but you can make up for it by subscribing to Prime. At a low, low price! Actually, same old price. Sorry. But you get the idea.)

Needless to say this is not well spent money. TPM’s audience is more ideologically diverse than you might imagine. But it’s not a ripe audience for Trumper small donors.

Admittedly this is only my individual experience. But it’s been confirmed to me by many other people with comparable political profiles. It tells me that the Trump campaign is blowing a lot of money on poorly targeted advertising. It’s also really damaging its reputation with the Icelandic, Finnish and Danish political communities.

These are the kinds of things you would expect if the operation were being run by people who don’t have experience doing digital work for political campaigns. And – surprise, surprise – it is being run by people who don’t have experience doing digital work for political campaigns.

Now, this may sound like I’m making Parscale out to be some kind of doofus. I’m not. He’s clearly a pretty successful entrepreneur. And if I were in his line of work and I got this opportunity, I’d grab for it with both hands. (Minor Josh Trivia Alert: I actually did run a tiny web design firm in the mid-late 90s in Providence, Rhode Island. It helped me support myself in grad school and was the indirect way I was able to do the initial tech work for TPM.) But if I were the one running the campaign, I’d never hire someone like that. Digital campaign work has become very technical, very big data focused. Parscale appears to have zero experience doing it. That’s crazy.

What does it all mean? Again, this isn’t meant to beat up on Parscale, though I’m sure he wouldn’t like this post. I think it confirms something we know about Trump: he goes for people he knows and who are loyal bordering on obsequiousness rather than people who are experts at what needs to be done. I mean, look at basically everything we’ve seen in this campaign. Trump found Parscale five years ago. His firm did work on Trump Organization websites. He apparently delivered a solid product at a competitive rate. When it came time to run a national political campaign (something totally different) he put Parscale in charge of the the entire digital operation. Why? I think basically because he knew him and they got along.

That’s Trump.

Latest Editors' Blog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: