Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and the Election of Donald Trump

Who is Robert Mercer?

Early in his career, Robert Mercer worked on computer algorithms for automatically translating text from one language to another. Deviating from the research trends of the time, he and his collaborators favored using statistical approaches, which proved to be very effective and formed much of the theoretical basis for current translation software, such as Google Translate and Siri.

In 1993, he was recruited to Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that has been compared to the Manhattan Project for its concentration of intellectual firepower. While working in the equities division, he turned it from an underperforming division to the most profitable division in the entire company.

Today, he is co-CEO of Renaissance. Bloomberg calls the Medallion Fund, the fund operated by Renaissance, to be “perhaps the world’s greatest money making machine.” His personal net worth is estimated to be in the billions.

What does he believe in?

As we will discuss shortly, Robert Mercer has been very politically active. So it would be worth it to get some idea of what his political beliefs may be.

Note that we at Insights are non-partisan, and by going into Robert Mercer’s views, we are neither denouncing nor supporting them. We merely think it would be informative for you to know what they are.

According to the New Yorker, an employee at Renaissance, David Magerman, has said, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.” (Magerman was fired from Renaissance shortly after making this statement.)

Aside from these, Mercer has argued that:

  1. The radiation from the bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Japanese citizens outside of the immediate blast zone healthier.
  2. The CIA operated a scheme out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas, to bring drugs into the US, which the Clintons also participated in. The Clintons were involved in murders connected with the operation.

Regardless of whether we agree with his views or not, they are clearly not representative of everyone’s views in the US, and US citizens should be wary if he has political powers, official or not, that are unchecked. In the next section, we discuss his role in the last election.

How was he able to influence the election?

Nick Patterson, a former employee at Renaissance, has said, “Bob [Robert Mercer] has used his money very effectively. He’s not the first person in history to use money in politics, but in my view Trump wouldn’t be President if not for Bob. It doesn’t get much more effective than that.”

Besides donating money to Republican campaigns and political action committees, he was able to sway voters in two main ways. One, he used public opinion polling to figure out how they felt. Two, he used targeting messaging with the help of Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart News.

1) Public opinion polling

In 2014, Patrick Caddell, a pollster who has been interested in helping an outsider to win the presidency for more than four decades, wrote an article for the Huffington Post, reporting that voters were ready to elect a “Mr. Smith” to office. “Mr. Smith” is the lead character from a movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which a Washington outsider is selected to take the place of a US senator who had unexpectedly died.

Some of the data Caddell reported includes:

  • 67% of voters believed that the struggle is not really between Democrats and Republicans but between ordinary citizens and the political elites.
  • 92% of voters said that we “must recruit and support for public office more ordinary citizens and fewer professional politicians.”
  • The majority of voters believed that the true ideology of the country is “American common sense.”

Caddell used polling to test all presidential candidates for their viability as a Mr. Smith and concluded that only then-candidate Donald Trump would be a fit. This influenced Mercer’s decision to back then-candidate Trump. Right up until Election Day on November 8, 2016, Mercer commissioned Caddell to do public opinion polling to produce actionable insights about voter sentiment.

2) Targeted messaging

We do not know to what extent the polling data was used. We do know that Patrick Caddell had presented some of his polling data to then-candidate Donald Trump. And we can guess from Mercer’s investment activities where else the data might have fallen.

Cambridge Analytica

During the 2016 political campaign, Mercer invested $5 million into Cambridge Analytica, a firm that specializes in the use of psychology to influence elections.

In their promotional materials, Cambridge Analytica claims to have created profiles for 220 million Americans from their digital footprints. A profile, or more precisely a psycho-demographic profile, is a set of variables whose values are predicted based on your digital footprint. It can be used to predict your behavior in response to stimuli, such as Facebook posts, newspaper articles, and as we have seen so prominently in the last election, Tweets. Given someone’s psycho-demographic profile, someone could design stimuli that would be likely to provoke a specific reaction from that person. At the time of this writing, the U.S. population is around 320 million. So they are able to do this for a significant percentage of the US population.

Jonathan Albright, a professor at Elon University, has said that Cambridge Analytica precisely targets individuals, follows them around the web, and sends them highly personalized messages: “This is a propaganda machine. It’s targeting people individually to recruit them to an idea. It’s a level of social engineering that I’ve never seen before. They’re capturing people and then keeping them on an emotional leash and never letting them go.

Breitbart

Steve Bannon, who was until recently the White House Chief Strategist, is a highly influential figure in Mercer’s life. He has been Mercer’s political advisor since 2012.

In the past, he was executive chairman of Breitbart News, as well as executive chairman of Pres. Trump’s presidential campaign. In fact, it was on his advice that Mercer put $10 million into Breitbart and $5 million into Cambridge Analytica. It would not be wild to assume that Caddell’s polling data made it to both Breitbart News and Pres. Trump during his presidential campaign.

How would it have been different using our platform?

It is crucial to a democracy that constituents understand how they can be influenced. Otherwise, power is concentrated in the hands of a few; and individuals, such as Robert Mercer, can make drastic changes to society without having to consult with everyone else on whether or not they agree with his goals.

This problem is nonpartisan. While we happened to go into detail on Robert Mercer’s involvement in politics, it was the Obama campaign that brought data analytics into campaigning.

Using our platform, polling data is made available to everyone, which levels the playing field. And the money that would normally be given to polling firms is given to the people who provide their information.

Sources

The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency (The New Yorker)

It’s Candidate Smith By a Landslide (Huffington Post)

Google, democracy, and the truth about internet search (The Guardian)

Jonathan Albright’s Medium