The Deterrence Project: Trump’s 2016 Strategy To Block Black Voters

ID: Image of a young dark skinned person with short hair in a yellow t shirt at a protest holding a sign that reads "voter suppression is violence"
(cool revolution / Flickr)

In 2016, assuming Black voters wouldn’t vote for him, Donald Trump tried to make sure they didn’t vote at all

The so-called “Deterrence Project”—recently uncovered by Britain’s Channel 4 News by way of a leaked copy of an election database used by the campaign in 2016—was a project of Trump’s digital campaign team which targeted 3.5 million Black people in key states with digital ads aimed at getting them to stay home, rather than vote for Hillary Clinton.

Channel 4 reports the strategy behind “Deterrence”:

In 16 key battleground states, millions of Americans were separated by an algorithm into one of eight categories, also described as ‘audiences’, so they could then be targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other platforms.

One of the categories was named ‘Deterrence,’ which was later described publicly by Trump’s chief data scientist as containing people that the campaign “hope don’t show up to vote.”

Black Americans—historically a community targeted with voter suppression tactics—were disproportionately marked ‘Deterrence’ by the 2016 campaign.

The Evidence

While Black Americans made up just 13 percent of the voters identified in the 2016 database, they constituted 29 percent of the “Deterrence” group.

And in certain states, the data was even pronounced: In Georgia, Black people make up 32 percent of the state’s population, but 61 percent of the Trump campaign’s “Deterrence” category. In North Carolina, where Black people make up 22 percent of the population, they were 46 percent of the “Deterrence” group. 

Donald Trump campaigning in Hershey, Pa., in December 2016. (Michael Vadon / Flickr)

In Michigan, a state where Trump won by a narrow margin, Black people made up 33 percent of the “Deterrence” category—while making up only 15 percent of voters. The same goes for Wisconsin, where the ‘Deterrence’ group was 17 percent Black voters, while only 5.4 percent of voters statewide are Black. 


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The campaign disproportionately targeted Black voters with negative ads about Clinton. In Georgia, for example, Trump aired the “Predators video,” an ad that includes a clip of Secretary Clinton calling Black youth “super predators.” After spending $55,000 on Facebook ads in Georgia, Trump won the state by 5 points

The Fall of Black Voter Turnout in 2016

In 2016, Black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election—dropping to 59 percent of Black voters, compared to 65 percent in 2012. Combined with systematic voter suppression efforts, ‘Deterrence’ likely played a role.

Ongoing Misinformation Efforts

The Trump campaign is denying these claims

“I would say I’m nearly 100 percent sure we did not run any campaigns that targeted even African Americans,” said Brad Parscale, the campaign’s 2016 digital director told PBS Frontline. And Tim Murtaugh, a Trump reelection campaign spokesman, dismissed the report as “fake news.”

Yet, according to The Lily, these misinformation efforts may be ongoing: Black women are still being targeted in misinformation campaigns, presenting a larger question of whose votes are actually protected this election cycle. 

“Thirty days out we’ve got all this data that proves that Black voters—and Black women specifically—are targeted, and nothing will be done about it, that protecting our votes is not important enough which means no one’s votes are,” Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, told The Lily. 

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About

Ashley Lynn Priore—a social entrepreneur, writer, public servant and innovative speaker—is the founder, president and CEO of Queen's Gambit, a national nonprofit using chess as a catalyst for change. Ashley is the author of Let's Learn Chess! and is currently completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh.