A day before they went to the polls, Kansas voters began receiving a text message urging them to support an independent candidate who had virtually no chance of winning instead of the Democrat who prevailed.
“Laura Kelly used to have an A rating from the NRA,” the text read. “Greg Orman has consistently supported common sense gun laws. Vote Greg Orman. It matters.”
In an election cycle that marked a ballooning proliferation of politically flavored texts, the ostensibly pro-Orman message was unusual because it was delivered from the same number that just five weeks earlier told the same recipients they should support Republican Kris Kobach.
If the plan was to point unlikely Kobach voters toward a candidate who didn’t pose a threat to the Republican nominee, the ruse didn’t work. Orman, an independent entrepreneur, floundered on election night while Kelly, a Democratic senator from Topeka, soared to victory with the promise of bipartisan harmony.
Welcome to the bewildering world of targeted text messaging, where unproven accusations of illegal activity swirl with personality profiling and unseen puppeteers searching for an upper hand in political battle.
Brian McClendon, a Democrat and former Google executive who lost the secretary of state race, said he believes Republicans are leveraging data harvested by Cambridge Analytica to isolate the voters they want to reach with a particular message.
There are several challenges to confirming his suspicions. It is too easy to create a fake phone number to send the texts, he said, and only Facebook could prove that technological gurus like Topeka native Brad Parscale are using ill-begotten information.
Cambridge Analytica amassed Facebook data from at least 50 million users under the guise of academic research, then applied psychographic modeling techniques to target specific voters with tailored messaging during President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Facebook, McClendon explained, perfectly knows who your friends are because you have told them. The social media titan also knows which ones you interact with more, and the type of content you like.
“The thing that Cambridge Analytica got, and the thing that actually pissed Facebook off quite a bit, is something pretty nefarious,” McClendon said, “which is the social graph of how people are connected, and that graph is extraordinarily valuable for figuring out who people really are in their heart of hearts.”
Whoever retained copies of that data, Mcclendon said, has an unfair advantage.
The data emerged as a topic of scrutiny in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the 2016 presidential election. Two key figures behind Trump’s unlikely win were Cambridge Analytica co-founder Steve Bannon, who became the White House strategist, and Parscale, the digital director who now runs the president’s re-election campaign.
“I have no doubt that the data that was generated by Cambridge Analytica was retained by Brad Parscale in some form,” Mcclendon said. “I’m sure the exact data file that was originally sent over has been deleted, but the information that it contained was converted into something useful for targeting, and I would bet large amounts of money that we can never settle that that data was never deleted from the Republican targeting system, or the Trump targeting system, and they continue to get more targeting data.”
Bannon traveled to Topeka a week before the election, announcing his arrival with a flurry of text messages inviting Trump supporters to a Red Tide Rising rally at a Holiday Inn.
In an interview following the micro-rally, where he told two-dozen people he was counting on their support, Bannon said he was promoting voter turnout efforts on phones through his new nonprofit, Citizens of the American Republic.
“That’s all going to start this weekend with kind of a final push in the last four days, starting Friday,” Bannon said. “We may actually end up here.”
The next day, he met with Kobach to talk logistics before moving on to the next rally. His organization ended up not sending any texts in Kansas but paid for phone calls that encouraged people to go out and support those who support Trump.
Kobach said his campaign utilized text messaging and that some third-party groups on both sides were involved.
“I can’t say I’m personally excited about it,” Kobach said after casting his ballot Tuesday morning. “That’s one of the nitty gritty details of the campaign. I know text messages are going out on behalf of me and other Republicans.”
One message read: “The next governor will appoint 3 KS Supreme Court Judges and redraw congressional districts. Republicans may lose congress for years if you don’t vote tomorrow.”
Another said: “This is Pres. Trump: I NEED to know how many GOP votes we can count on in 66614. Commit to vote.”
Democrats also deployed text messaging to bolster their profile. Ethan Corson, the party’s executive director, said it was a useful way of introducing new candidates to supporters or letting them know about campaign events in their area.
Corson viewed texts as another tool among the many in a cache the party or a candidate might use — knocking on doors, mailers, social media ads, television spots and phone calls.
There may have been more texts this year than ever before, Corson said, but “I don’t think anything is replacing anything else. I think it’s additive, and different voters are going to be more effectively reached through different mediums, but you don’t always know which one will be most effective for which voter. I think it’s most effective to try to talk to them multiple times in multiple different ways.”
For text messages, Democrats use a platform called Hustle that supplies phone numbers for each text that goes out. People may not be willing to answer a call from a number they don’t recognize, Corson said, but most will at least glance at a text message.
Some people get annoyed with the texts, but they also get annoyed when candidates show up at their door or give them a call, he said.
In Kansas, the Democratic party only targets those who have signed up to receive messages. In comparison, those who received the messages that switched loyalties from Kobach to Orman didn’t know why they were getting the texts in the first place, and it isn’t clear who was behind the subterfuge.
If the Cambridge Analytica methods were deployed, McClendon said, someone hypothetically could identify registered Republicans who were unlikely to support Kobach, then send them a deceptive message in hopes of keeping them out of the Kelly camp.
“There seems to be a clear correlation between the Kobach messages followed by the Orman messages using the same system,” McClendon said. “There’s no way to be confident that some Facebook or Cambridge Analytica targeting was used to figure out who to hit unless you get a long list of users who received it and they all share some obvious, common trait that couldn’t be found otherwise, and I don’t think even the FBI is going to be that good.”