Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images
The Trump campaign’s unlikely digital marketing whiz is on the outs.
Brad Parscale made headlines for his social media savvy in 2016, a strategy still credited for giving the then-candidate a major boost by flooding social platforms, most notably Facebook, with targeted advertising. Parscale was named the Trump campaign’s digital director in 2016 and in 2018 ascended to the role of campaign manager, leading Trump’s bid for reelection.
In 2016, the Trump campaign outspent Hillary Clinton by $16 million on the platform, pushing out 5.9 million variations on ads and aggressively optimizing to replicate successes and avoid failed tactics in the process. During the same time period, the Clinton campaign only ran 66,000 different ads, roughly as many as the Trump campaign tested in a single day.
“Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people, Facebook was going to be how he won,” the brash digital director told 60 Minutes in an election post-mortem the next year. In the same interview, Parscale explained how the campaign brought in “embeds” — employees from Facebook that taught Parscale and his staff how to hone their skills on the platform.
Under Parscale, the Trump campaign also reverse-engineered ad audiences from its current support base rather than targeting ads broadly or looking at traditional demographics.
I am pleased to announce that Bill Stepien has been promoted to the role of Trump Campaign Manager. Brad Parscale, who has been with me for a very long time and has led our tremendous digital and data strategies, will remain in that role, while being a Senior Advisor to the…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2020
“Brad Parscale, who has been with me for a very long time and has led our tremendous data and digital strategies, will remain in that role, while being a Senior Advisor to the campaign,” Trump wrote in the announcement.
As the Daily Beast reports, the title change formalizes the reality on the ground. Parscale had reportedly already taken a back seat on broad strategy to his 2016 communications director Jason Miller and deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien, who will step up as campaign manager.
The eleventh-hour campaign change is certainly also a product of the president’s very real reelection concerns. The Trump administration’s national failure to rise to meet the coronavirus crisis, Trump’s ongoing racist appeals in the midst of a civil rights movement and his total lack of messaging discipline combines for a rocky path to reelection — a reality that lopsided polls reflect.
Parscale was reportedly already on the outs. CNN reported earlier this year that Trump berated and threatened to sue Parscale over plummeting poll numbers during the president’s early pandemic failures. That moment came after Trump appeared to recommend ingesting potentially deadly disinfectants as a treatment for the virus.
Recent events likely heightened that tension further. When President Trump traveled to a less than half-empty arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Parscale faced the blame for falling for a prank by TikTok users, led by anti-Trump K-pop fans, who drove up huge registration numbers. While the Trump campaign downplayed the role the fake registrations had in amping the event, the open seats made for a very visible embarrassment for the optics-fixated Trump.
Parscale, a political outsider, famously built the Trump campaign’s first website for $1,500. In spite of his lack of political expertise, he went on to helm Trump’s digital advertising operations as digital director, later becoming synonymous with the campaign itself and its crude, aggressive approach to social media marketing and digital branding.
A BuzzFeed profile from 2017 likened Parscale to a modest, loyal soldier for Trump, one who became “indispensable” for his intuitive ability to communicate the Trump brand. Parscale “believed in the message [and] knew how to promote it on social media.”
That ability to translate Trumpism to the online world developed the roughshod but relentless messaging that still characterizes the Trump campaign. It also had a hand in shaping — and in turn being shaped by — the active online world of Trump loyalists, who likely aren’t going anywhere no matter what happens come November.