Forget Ted Cruz versus Marco Rubio, or Donald Trump versus the GOP establishment. Iowa could be defined by a battle between two data analytics firms: Cambridge Analytica, which consulted for the Texas senator, and Optimus Consulting, which worked for his Florida rival.
Both Republicans relied heavily on the firms to create the models their campaigns leaned on in the run up to the caucuses. Rubio’s advisors boasted of him running a “Moneyball” campaign, while Cruz credited Cambridge Analytica in December with his “rising success.”
“The conventional wisdom has been destroyed. What you can do is rely on data,” Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager told the Washington Post at the time. In fact, Cruz’s camp had statisticians and behavioral psychologists from the firm embedded in order to help with what it called psychographic targeting, “which categorizes supporters into personality groups in order to target them with specially tailored messaging,” according to the company.
Rubio, meanwhile, was helped by hiring veteran hands from Mitt Romney’s successful 2012 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist in 2012, credited Rubio consultant Rich Beeson with forming data models that helped shape the Romney strategy four years ago.
“Every primary, Rich predicted the result before and was always right,” Stevens said. “His in-depth analytics then was tremendously important for us.” Beeson, a partner at FLS Connect, declined to comment for this piece.
Stevens also praised Roe, who has a reputation as an aggressive strategist.
“Data analytics helped them know where their vote is. I think Jeff Roe did a superb job,” said Stevens. “But Cruz really worked it. He did it the old fashioned way and voters rewarded him for it.”
Other consultants credited Cruz’s traditional campaign structure and put less emphasis on his data analytics for propelling him to victory.
“It was quite a concerted campaign, it wasn’t just data analytics,” said Bob Haus, an Iowa-based GOP consultant. “He traveled. He did all 99 counties and his message was consistent. There are some things data can tell you, but technology only gets you so far.”
Haus, who was unaffiliated during the campaign after Rick Perry dropped out in September, pointed to Cruz’s volunteer army. “He had a better organization, a much better organization and it wasn’t just evangelicals,” he said.
Haus, a caucus campaign veteran, fretted that even in a small state like Iowa the race was nationalized.
“It’s becoming more a national race than fifty state campaigns — that’s been a progression we’ve seen over the year,” he said. “National security and ISIS and veterans care, those are big federal issues not parochial state issues.”
Chris Turner, CEO of Stampede Consulting, a firm specializing in grassroots politics, echoed Haus’ assessment.
“Analytics focus the effort. It can help optimize deployment of limited resources. But then it's up to the boots on the ground, the people, to get the job done,” said Turner. “You can't win a race of any significance while remaining at arms length from the voters. You have to go and meet them where they are and use every tool you have to persuade them to your cause.”
Ian Patrick Hines, a GOP consultant who specializes in pairing digital and field, said it was more than just the tech side of the Iowa campaign that propelled Cruz.
“Cruz invested early in digital, data, and field in Iowa, and that investment is a huge part of what carried him to victory tonight,” he said. “Time and time again, we’ve seen that the campaigns who pull out big game-day wins — Obama 2008, Rick Santorum 2012, Cruz 2016 — are the ones that invested early in their field program. That’s no accident, and other campaigns should take notice.”
In fact, there was record turnout in the GOP caucuses with some 185,000 people attending on Monday. That was supposed to herald a Trump victory because the businessman needed to change the electorate from its traditional makeup, which President Obama did successfully in 2008. Despite a 5.4 percent increase in turnout from 2012, Trump still lost to Cruz by 4 points, edging the third-placed Rubio by less than 2,000 votes.
Consultants on both sides of the aisle gleefully pointed to Trump’s failure to turn his supporters out. With 75 percent of the vote in, Jeff Gabriel, deputy digital director of strategy and accountability at Organizing for Action, tweeted: “And Trump is still losing. #OrganizationMatters.”
“If Trump had won there would have been more pressure to go to big tarmac rallies and not do it the old fashioned way,” said Stevens. But he wouldn’t rule out a Trump rebound.
“It’s all in how Donald Trump reacts to not winning,” he said. “If he learns from it, gets serious, treats the whole process with more respect, I think he could come back.”
He warned campaign staff to brace for the long haul.
“They’ve been working like dogs for a year, but you’re maybe two minutes into the first quarter,” he said.