COLUMBUS, Ohio — A British TV station reported this week that Cleveland was among the cities where a controversial Republican-aligned firm identified Black voters and others who could be dissuaded from voting in the 2016 presidential election by targeting them with social-media ads.
Channel 4′s reporting was based on a copy of a voter database it obtained that was developed for the Trump campaign by Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British company. Channel 4 mostly focused on Milwaukee in its reporting, which found that Black voters were disproportionately categorized in the file for “deterrence,” meaning they were deemed unlikely to vote for Donald Trump, but were judged to be possible to be discouraged from voting for Hillary Clinton. The report and the subjects it interviewed argued the strategy, which called for targeting these voters with social-media ads, was akin to a modern form of voter suppression.
But Channel 4 also briefly referenced Cleveland as an example of other cities where the file likewise identified large numbers of voters for “deterrence.” Channel 4 provided The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com with additional Cleveland-specific data from the voter file.
The data says that of Cuyahoga County’s 262,633 Black voters, 89,417, or 33%, were flagged for deterrence, compared to 68,022, or 14%, of 481,446 white voters.
In four predominantly Black precincts, 49.9% or more of voters — the highest percentages in the county — were flagged for deterrence. They were Cleveland 03-A, in the west bank of The Flats, Cleveland 05-E, which is in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, Cleveland 07-W, which is Downtown and Richmond Heights 01-B.
Former Trump campaign officials told the Washington Post it used different data sets for its ad targeting, not the data cited in the Channel 4 report. A campaign spokesman called the report “fake news.”
But Trump campaign officials in an October 2016 interview with Bloomberg News acknowledged part of their strategy was to reduce Black turnout. One unnamed official was quoted as describing “three major voter suppression operations under way” — at white liberals, young women and African-Americans.
One ad the campaign targeted to Black voters was a cartoon that used a 1996 sound bite in which Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton used the term “super-predators” while advocating for the 1994 crime bill, Bloomberg reported. This ad ran through Facebook “dark posts” that could only be seen by their targets.
In 2020, Trump has tried to reach out to Black voters, including promoting his signing of a criminal-justice reform bill and signing of a tax law that creates “opportunity zones” meant to attract investment to urban centers. A key player in this outreach effort is the Rev. Darrell Scott of Cleveland Heights, who founded a non-profit that controversially held a cash giveaway event in Cleveland last year.
Overall, voter turnout dropped only slightly in Cuyahoga County from 70% in 2012 to 69% in 2016. But that translated to Clinton winning 48,961 fewer votes than then-President Barack Obama did four years earlier.
And of course, a factor that helps explain a drop-off in turnout in Cuyahoga County in 2016 was that Obama, the nation’s first Black president, wasn’t on the ballot anymore.
Cambridge Analytica became mired in controversy after it was reported the firm improperly collected personal information from millions of Facebook users to develop psychological profiles.
Here is the Channel 4 segment: