Trump Names Digital Guru Brad Parscale Campaign Manager For 2020 Run
The former digital director of President Trump’s 2016 campaign, Brad Parscale, has been named campaign manager for the 2020 re-election campaign.
A political novice prior to the 2016 race, Parscale oversaw the campaign’s digital operations from the San Antonio offices of his web design and strategy firm Giles-Parscale. What began as a one-man operation in 2015 grew into one of the most successful—and controversial—digital campaigns in presidential history, with Parscale’s team working alongside embedded staffers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google to fine-tune the campaign’s advertising online.
"Brad was essential in bringing a disciplined technology and data-driven approach to how the 2016 campaign was run," said Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner in a statement. "His leadership and expertise will help build a best-in-class campaign." The news of Parscale's new position was first reported by the Drudge Report.
Parscale eventually assumed broader responsibilities beyond digital advertising during the last election cycle, but his elevation to the role of campaign manager suggests team Trump believes the political battles of the future will be won and lost online. They'll also start early. President Obama did not announce his 2012 re-election campaign until April of 2011. President Trump, by contrast, filed his paperwork to the Federal Election Commission the day of his inauguration.
Parscale is one of the few people to have worked alongside Trump since the earliest days of his primary campaign in 2015. New to politics, he approached campaign advertising as he had buying digital ads for commercial clients in Texas, where he spent the majority of his career.
His elevation to the role of campaign manager suggests team Trump believes the political battles of the future will be won and lost online.
This unconventional background received scrutiny from both sides of the aisle during the election cycle. In August 2016, headlines skeptically noted that while the Clinton campaign had already spent $52 million on television ads, the Trump campaign had spent precisely zero on television. In Republican campaign circles, some critics viewed Parscale’s political inexperience as a liability that could set the party back.
But as history books will show, Parscale’s digital-first approach created an entirely new playbook for how campaigns could be run far more economically, but with even greater reach, via platforms like Facebook. The strategy was born in part by instinct and in part by necessity; the campaign ran on a shoestring budget, with Trump not soliciting donations until after he had clinched the Republican party's nomination. By election day, however, the Trump campaign had drastically outspent the Clinton campaign in Facebook advertising.
As Parscale told WIRED shortly after the election, "Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing. Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising."
This technique has fascinated political operatives who seek to replicate the Trump campaign's strategy, and raised concerns among lawmakers about transparency and accountability in the political advertising. A Russian troll farm called Internet Research Agency purchased political ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Google, exposing millions of people to Russian propaganda designed to divide the electorate. Earlier this month, the FBI's special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian operatives who helped carry out this disinformation campaign, known as Project Lahkta. Meanwhile, Congress has called Google, Twitter, and Facebook to Washington repeatedly to question them about their shared role in the 2016 election.
As these investigations have increasingly focused on digital advertising, Parscale has frequently found himself drawn into the eye of the storm. In hearings before Congress, lawmakers have asked Facebook, Twitter, and Google whether they saw any overlap between the lists of voters the Trump campaign targeted and the voters targeted by the Russian ads. If that overlap existed, critics say, it would indicate some coordination between the Trump digital team and Russian operatives. But the tech giants have maintained that they have found no evidence of overlap in either the targeting or the content of those ads.
Parscale, who has given a closed door interview to congressional investigators, wrote on Twitter last July that he was "unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operations of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign." He added, "The Trump digital campaign used the exact same digital marketing strategies that are used every day by corporate America."
And it used them well. As former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez recently wrote for WIRED, the $100,000 Russian operatives spent on divisive Facebook ads is a tiny fraction of the time and money the Trump campaign invested in using Facebook.
Parscale’s digital-first approach created an entirely new playbook for how campaigns could be run.
The Trump team also used the site's Custom Audiences tool to target ads to the exact voters they wanted to reach, then used a tool called Lookalike Audiences to widen that reach further. The Trump campaign also benefited from the way Facebook's ad auctions prioritize content that tends to elicit clicks, comments, and shares. The more provocative the content, in other words, the more exposure Facebook will give it. To test which ads were most engaging, the Republican National Committee's former director of advertising, Gary Coby, told WIRED the campaign conducted "A/B testing on steroids," publishing up to 175,000 variations of the same ad in a single day. The fact that more outrageous ads effectively cost less has reignited the debate over regulating digital ads.
The Trump campaign was hardly the first to benefit from the flexibility and relative secrecy that digital advertising affords campaigns. President Obama's 2012 campaign also advertised online. But many of the tools Trump's team used to target voters, including Custom Audiences and Lookalikes, were either in their infancy or yet to be announced during the 2012 election cycle.
Trump's campaign was the first to use them to their fullest potential—and also the first to invite quite so much regulatory scrutiny. The success of Parscale's digitally driven strategy took the world by surprise. It simultaneously rewrote the rules about how presidential campaigns can be won, and raised new questions about what new oversight these campaigns might demand.
Despite these shifting winds in Washington, Parscale's promotion to campaign manager shows that the Trump team is undeterred. Parscale will assume a challenging position; the Trump campaign fired former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in 2016, leaving the campaign in the hands of chairman Paul Manafort, who was then also fired, leaving the title of campaign manager to Kellyanne Conway.
In this new role, Parscale's responsibilities will also extend far beyond decisions about what ads to run on which platforms. There will be debates to prepare for, Sunday morning shows to appear on, and egos to placate. As a core member of Trump's inner circle, Parscale was already party to these conversations in 2016. This will, though, be his first time leading them.
"A guy who went from doing the family vineyard websites to now having a job of this stature is pretty insane," says a source close to Pascale.
Parscale's businesses are also intertwined with Trump Super PACs like America First Action. He'll have to wall himself off from that business in order to avoid violating campaign finance laws.
But by positioning a once-unknown digital strategist at the head of the campaign, President Trump is signaling that his 2016 online insurgency was only the beginning. In fact, it barely skipped a beat.
- When WIRED first profiled Parscale back in the summer of 2016, few outside the campaign even knew Trump had a digital director.
- Advertising on Facebook could change dramatically by 2020, as the social giant works to recover from two hellish years.
- Parscale has also faced questions about the role a British data analysis firm called Cambridge Analytica played in the 2016 campaign.