US Campaign: How Donald Trump is using an app as his secret weapon

The quest for digital power begins - how could it be otherwise? - with Donald Trump. American media claim he has a secret weapon. According to media coverage, the secret weapon of the man with the wild hair who wants to "make America great again" is not his blustering personality, but a mobile app called Nationbuilder. This software supposedly helped Trump, now the only remaining Republican candidate in the presidential primaries, to reach and motivate the masses.

Our lives have become digital: We learn about a classmate’s wedding in Honduras via Facebook, we rate photos of restaurants on Instagram and share the latest news on Twitter. But what about politics?

For politicians, parliamentary debate culture seems to remain virtually unchanged, while voters and non-voters alike are passionately debating on Facebook and Twitter. Politicians advertise with posters or, as is the custom in the US, send their volunteers from door to door with brochures, conduct telephone surveys or appear in televised debates. But now, an app is supposedly deciding the US primaries. Really? We traveled to Los Angeles to meet both the makers and the users of the app to get to the bottom of this story.

The Founder's story 

Los Angeles is the home of Nationbuilder, Trump's alleged secret weapon. For a long time, Downtown Los Angeles, where houses were demolished and streets bulldozed in the 1960s and where skyscrapers loom today, was run-down and neglected. Now, old office buildings are being gentrified into expensive lofts. In one of the brick buildings on Grand Avenue, Will Conway is sitting between bare brick walls in a third-floor conference room. Conway is the young, blonde and dynamic department head for Politics & Advocacy at Nationbuilder. He says: “I want everyone to feel empowered to change the world.”

The objective of Nationbuilder’s founder Jim Gilliam was to democratize politics. He was an early believer in the power of the internet. As a teen, he suffered from cancer, and the internet allowed him to inspire people to help him. He says he owes it to the internet that another person’s blood is coursing through his veins today, that he is breathing with another person’s lungs: the internet saved his life. Jim Gilliam wanted to apply this power to the political realm. First, he developed an internet software for election campaigns. But he wanted to create a tool that would serve everyone, and so in 2011, he created Nationbuilder.

Nationbuilder is primarily a software. Anyone who can spare 30 dollars a month can go through a ten-step process and become the leader of a group, an organization or a movement. “Anyone can join. Whether you’re running an ice cream shop or leading the British Labour Party,” Will Conway explains in his Grand Avenue office. It is all about building the most efficient network possible.

The app investors were trying to solve a common problem - that the number of each individual’s personal contacts are limited. “150 deep, meaningful and genuine relationships – no one has more than that,” Conway says. If a politician – in a presidential election campaign, for example – wants to reach the greatest possible number of people, such as millions of registered voters in California, he or she must exceed this natural limit. Conway explains how this worked in the past: The candidate would turn to very rich, powerful people and use their influence, which meant that they might have to align their own ideals and ideas with those of the powerful. “Our technology,” Will Conway says, “can change this: With us, anyone can build a support network and a movement.” In 2015 alone, 264 million dollars in campaign money were generated, more than a million volunteers recruited and 129,000 events organized via the platform.

These are the numbers. But how does it actually work? First, the user determines his goals, creates a website, and chooses an appropriate font and color scheme. He sets an email address and feeds existing contacts into the software. Politicians can also import and analyze data sets, compiled by Nationbuilder from a variety of government departments. Usually, such data sets containing the addresses of potential voters cost tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes, the party will pay for these on behalf of a candidate, Conway says; an independent candidate, however, is forced to invest large amounts of money in this kind of data. “This used to be an obstacle for candidates outside of the establishment,” Conway says.

Once the contact data is fed into the system, clients can also filter supporters by their location, or by their preference to donate money or rather volunteer for the campaign. This allows them to approach supporters in a targeted fashion. “The first step, for example, would be to email a guy named John, greeting him by name,” says Conway. The second step would be to knock on John’s door and say: “Hey John, you said you care about education. Here are my ideas how we can improve education in this country.” If John indicated that he didn’t want to donate, he won’t be asked for money. “Instead, he would be asked if he’d be willing to hand out flyers next Saturday.” All this is connected with Facebook or Twitter.

Dexter O’Connell, campaign director in Charleston, explains how well this worked for him in the “Tecklenburg for Mayor” election campaign. At the beginning, independent candidate John Tecklenburg trailed his rival by seven percentage points; in the end, he won by 18 points. “We were the only ones who really used the technology,” O’Connell says. His verdict: “The quality of available data is individualized to the point that it changes politics.”

The technology helped O’Connell’s team to identify potential voters they would not have found any other way: liberal-minded Republicans who had voted Democrat in the past. O’Connell sent out his campaign volunteers with their smartphones to share Tecklenburg’s speeches. Depending on their party affiliation, voters were shown different speeches with different themes.

“I can’t ask a volunteer to buy a smartphone in order to be part of our campaign,” he says. There were groups of volunteers that went canvassing without any individualized data or new technologies, knocking on doors as usual – without any prior knowledge whether they would encounter sympathetic minds or not. The difference was striking. “We got a lot less support in these areas than in the areas that were canvassed by app users,” O’Connell says.

“Nationbuilder is an incredibly useful and powerful platform,” Patrick Hines chimes in. He is a former Nationbuilder employee who started his own business and helps Republicans find supporters. He says that the basic idea is the same as before the digital age. “I persuade people to take action and vote.” A lot more people can be reached via the internet, however. The available data makes it possible to target people individually. “We know ahead of time which kind of information is going to hit home.”

Campaign work in the US has reached a watershed, digital experts say. While a Facebook page used to be just an add-on to the actual campaign, the discourse is now increasingly taking place in the digital sphere. Politicians are beginning to understand how vital the internet is to their success.

So what about Donald Trump? Patrick Hines tells the following story: He himself received an email from Trump asking him if he could canvas in South Carolina. But Hines lives in Maryland – a seven-hour drive from South Carolina. “They should have been able to filter that,” he says. “They are using the platform. But not particularly well.” In his opinion, that is exactly the Trump style of campaigning: “He isn’t professional, he is loud.” He may not even be aware of all the things he could do with the app.”

Nevertheless, supporters of Donald Trump or Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders open accounts with Nationbuilder several times a week in order to approach people in their immediate community. “And that isn’t even related to the official campaigns,” says Will Conway.

Harnessing Emotions

Even when Trump doesn’t always send out the right emails, he dominates the digital debate like no one else does. His comments spread throughout the internet like wildfire. And he is not the only one who benefits from new media. “The fact that Bernie Sanders, an old Socialist from Vermont, is even considered a real rival to Hillary Clinton is due to his online popularity,” Dexter O’Connell says in Charleston.

Of course, it is not only about platforms, but also about contents. Like Sanders, Trump benefits from a general discontent with the establishment among voters. Both are using emotions, both are proving that campaign for the highest office in the USA no longer has to be limited to the old political establishment.

Perhaps the internet is not only democratizing the music industry, but also the political world, just as Nationbuilder’s founder Gilliam hoped. But even professionals are worried. Dexter O’Connell, for example, admits: “I don’t know if all this is a good thing.” Nowadays, however, he would not tackle any election campaigns without this technology; the success speaks for itself. Will Conway from Nationbuilder also says that he is afraid. Afraid that ten years from now, he will look back and realize that online campaigning, including the app, has become just another, better way for the established class to persuade people.

The German version of the article appeared on Berliner Zeitung on May 8, 2016. 

Research was made possible by the Transatlantic Media Fellowship Program.  

Please note that the views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.