Was Cambridge Analytica the Source of the Data Manafort Shared With the Russians?

Tuesday we learned that Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, shared polling data about the 2016 presidential race with Konstantin Kilimnick, a Russian agent. Given that Americans are constantly flooded with information from polls, that can sound rather innocuous. But David Meanser, who refers to himself as “an advertising guy,” took to Twitter to tell us what it means from a marketing perspective. Here are some of the highlights:

At the heart of any campaign, big or small, is data. Data about the market, people, the competition. In politics, this is called “polling.” Same thing…Big companies will spend hundreds of millions on various versions of this undertaking, and employ thousands of people. The results of all this data, and the way it’s sliced and diced, is kept behind firewalls, under lock & key, privileged access…

What do we do with the data? We use it to decide who to target. To position the brand as distinctive from other brands. To develop messaging and ads. To de-position and conquest the competition (and lots more)…Sharing polling data with anyone is opening a door to collaborate with them. It’s allowing them to use your raw materials, your valuable resources, your manpower…

So, if you’ve got Manafort sharing valuable and proprietary data with a Russian intelligence operative, and you’ve got a Russian hacking operations stealing the competition’s (the DNC’s and the Clinton campaign’s) data…then you’ve got it all…Everything you need to destroy the competition.

It doesn’t sound so innocuous anymore, does it?

After the original story about all of this broke on Tuesday, the New York Times added a few details.

Both Mr. Manafort and Rick Gates, the deputy campaign manager, transferred the data to Mr. Kilimnik in the spring of 2016 as Mr. Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, according to a person knowledgeable about the situation. Most of the data was public, but some of it was developed by a private polling firm working for the campaign, according to the person.

Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Kremlin and who has claimed that Mr. Manafort owed him money from a failed business venture, the person said.

What caught my eye was the timing. Manafort joined the campaign on March 29, 2016 and was made campaign manager by mid-May. In terms of delegates secured, Trump clinched the Republican nomination in late May. According to the Times, that is when Manafort and Gates transferred data from the Trump campaign to Kilimnik.

Prior to Trump clinching the nomination, the campaign’s data operation was run by Brad Parscale, a guy who designed web sites. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the data firm Cambridge Analytic first met with Trump’s advisors in mid-May to pitch their services, right about the time that Manafort was promoted as campaign manager. A whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica reported that Steve Bannon had been directing their data collection efforts since 2014.

Conservative strategist Stephen K. Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s early efforts to collect troves of Facebook data as part of an ambitious program to build detailed profiles of millions of American voters, a former employee of the data-science firm said Tuesday.

The 2014 effort was part of a high-tech form of voter persuasion touted by the company, which under Bannon identified and tested the power of anti-establishment messages that later would emerge as central themes in President Trump’s campaign speeches, according to Chris Wylie, who left the company at the end of that year…

The year before Trump announced his presidential bid, the data firm already had found a high level of alienation among young, white Americans with a conservative bent.

In focus groups arranged to test messages for the 2014 midterms, these voters responded to calls for building a new wall to block the entry of illegal immigrants, to reforms intended to “drain the swamp” of Washington’s entrenched political community and to thinly veiled forms of racism toward African Americans called “race realism,” he recounted.

The firm also tested views of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The only foreign thing we tested was Putin,” he said.

In other words, Cambridge Analytica would have been able to pitch Trump’s advisors on reams of data they had already collected that would be useful to the campaign. And Paul Manafort would have been on the receiving end of whatever information they shared. By June, Cambridge Analytica staff were moving into Brad Parscale’s headquarters in San Antonio, Texas.

What I’m offering is the possibility that the data Paul Manafort shared with Kilimnick wasn’t simply “polling data,” but perhaps the kind of proprietary targeting data that Steve Bannon had collected via Cambridge Analytica. At this point, it is simply conjecture based on timing. But if true, it would go a long way towards explaining how the Russians and the Trump campaign wound up with exactly the same social media strategy. That would be the basis of a conspiracy to influence the election, which is the opposite of innocuous.

Update: The New York Times has provided this correction to their earlier story:

A previous version of this article misidentified the people to whom Paul Manafort wanted a Russian associate to send polling data. Mr. Manafort wanted the data sent to two Ukrainian oligarchs, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov, not Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin.

In light of that, the reference to Deripaska that was originally included has been removed.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.