How The Presidential Candidates Spy On Their Supporters

Written by Padric Gleason Gonzales

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If you follow politics, it’s no secret that campaigns on either side of the aisle have invested in using data and analytics over the last decade in search of an edge.

Yet most people don’t realize the scope of the digital tracking technologies that presidential candidates are leveraging in real-time across the internet, especially on their own website visitors.

Candidates’ websites send personal data and information from every visit to a plethora of advertising networks, including well-known platforms like Google and Facebook, as well as smaller specialized networks like Outbrain and Criteo.

The impact of politically-affiliated technologies has led to huge, grassroots fundraising hauls. The continued development of analytics and tracking software has given each candidate more opportunities to understand their supporters and personalize their messaging.

Below, we take a look at the Biden and Trump campaigns’ analytics and tracking technology in 2020.

All our analysis was performed via a combination of our own investigation, forensic analysis of website data transmission, and data from Builtwith.com and Ghostery. 


Tracking Technologies

Here’s how both candidates stack up in terms of the different tracking technologies they use:

Biden and Trump Campaigns' Tracking Technologies Chart

Powered by the early digital success of Howard Dean (whose campaign spawned the political technology firm, Blue State Digital, currently used by the Biden campaign), recent Democrats have leveraged data and analytics technology heavily. Barack Obama’s campaigns in both 2008 and 2012 did so in particular, with some even crediting those efforts as the deciding factor in Obama’s wins.

In fact, the Republican National Committee was so badly beaten in 2012 that they commissioned an “election autopsy report” that concluded much of their loss was due to insufficient capabilities in data and analytics.

That perceived Democratic advantage seemed to be challenged in 2016 when the Trump campaign infamously worked with Cambridge Analytica to micro-target Facebook users with deeply personalized content.

Since then, the scales have shifted again. With 13 trackers in total, the Biden campaign seems to have caught up with (maybe even surpassed) the Trump campaign’s digital strategy, thanks in large part to a heavy emphasis on analytics and social media over traditional programmatic advertising.

Politically-Affiliated Technologies

It gets really interesting when you look at the politically-affiliated technology platforms being used. Among the 2 candidates, there are 4 platforms being used that have overt political ties.

Biden and Trump politically affiliated analytics technologies usage chart

While there aren’t many politically-affiliated technologies this election cycle, the few the campaigns are using have had a huge impact.

On the Democratic side, Joe Biden uses ActBlue—a Democratic-affiliated fundraising platform that streamlines small-dollar donations by sharing account information and data across Democratic candidates and causes. ActBlue rose to national prominence during the 2018 midterm elections, and its influence has only grown since then. The Biden campaign also works with Blue State—a digital agency specializing in:

  • Fundraising and growth strategy
  • Grassroots mobilization
  • Voter engagement strategy
  • Tech strategy and digital experiences

Founded in 2004, the agency grew immensely after helping to propel Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.

The emphasis on small donors and ease of donating has served the Biden campaign well. In September, Biden raked in $383 million, atop another $364.5 million in August. That nest egg puts the Democratic nominee far ahead of the Trump campaign and the RNC, who brought in $210 million in August.

The Trump campaign is using WinRed—a response to ActBlue—which runs on the Revv platform. WinRed differs from ActBlue primarily in its data collection.

“According to the site’s privacy policy,” OpenSecrets.org writes, “it reserves the right to collect identifying information including emails, phone numbers, voter registration and affiliation information, and information from registrants’ social media posts.”

The data WinRed collects is passed on to Data Trust, a Republican database.

Advertising Technologies

There are 12 different ad tracking technologies between the 2 candidates:

Comparison chart of Biden and Trump advertising technologies used during their campaigns'

As to be expected, both candidates use Google and Facebook ad technologies to either target visitors off-site or retarget them across the web. Beyond the two big ad networks, there’s a lot of daylight between the campaigns.

The Biden campaign uses Twitter Ads, Snap Pixel, Outbrain, and Tapad. Notably, Tapad enables the campaign to track visitors across various devices—a capability that becomes increasingly vital with each election cycle.

The Trump campaign, on the other hand, uses AppNexus, Rubicon Project, and The Trade Desk. 

Analytics Technologies

Across the 2 campaigns, there are 12 different analytics technologies in use:

Comparison chart of analytics technologies used by Biden and Trump political campaigns

Both campaigns are using the big 2—Facebook and Google Analytics, to track website visitors and their onsite behavior. Optimizely is also being used by both campaigns for website personalization and, presumably, for A/B testing of content and design.

When it comes to analytics, this is one area where the gap between the campaigns (and the gap between Trump’s 2016 and 2020 operations) is widest.

The Trump campaign seems focused on the basics, notably Google Analytics and Facebook. Their only unique analytics platform is Yahoo Web Analytics, which was shuttered back in 2016. With that being said, it is likely legacy code that hasn’t been removed or has been repurposed by another company that we don’t know the identity of. The campaign doesn’t seem to have any visible solution for funnel analysis or robust web optimization.

Biden, on the other hand, has built sophisticated analytics and web optimization operation, drawing on solutions like CrazyEgg, New Relic, MediaMath, and Mixpanel. This analytics stack enables the Biden campaign to respond directly to website visitors’ onsite behavior—optimizing the site itself, personalizing ads, and more.

Email Technologies

Both candidates use cloud email technology, with Joe Biden using Google Apps and Donald Trump using Microsoft Office 365.

Comparison chart of email technologies used by Biden and Trump political campaigns

 

The Biden campaign uses Mailchimp to create, automate, and send their email campaigns—whereas the Trump campaign uses different solutions for email marketing and email delivery.

Notably, the Biden team pulls ActBlue into their emails, too. That makes it remarkably quick and easy (as in one click) for recipients to donate to his campaign.

Email screenshot of Biden Harris campaign

Data → Votes?

Despite an early Democratic jump on analytics and tracking technologies, the 2016 election showed a levelling of the playing field.

As technology continues to develop, candidates can’t afford to sit back—their campaigns need to constantly evolve and improve their approach to digital fundraising, advertising, and data collection and implementation.

Our analysis above shows clearly how the data operations of 2020 campaigns differ from those just four years ago. Time will tell how effective each campaign manages to turn data, analytics, ads, and fundraising dollars into actual votes on Election Day.