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Techno-GOP

Web-savvy is no longer a monopoly of the political left

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Austin

Techno-GOP

Home to two-term Republican governor Rick Perry, Austin is also the newest outpost of the social networking giant Facebook, which announced it had surpassed Google as the most visited website in the United States around the same time it was announcing it would open a $3 million office here with an estimated 200 jobs. Not a bad catch for the governor, who uses a bless-their-hearts tone towards the California techies in the room when he says, “California’s got problems. They just do.”

In a second annual event, Perry has invited a group of tech wizards to the capitol from the nearby geek conference known as South by Southwest (SXSW, if you’re hip, as all attendees are). And the Silicon Valley types aren’t going to make it out of here without a lesson on the combination of tax policy and increasingly sophisticated culture to which Perry attributes his state’s success in luring companies away from the West Coast.

Perry gets a Tenth-Amendment glint in his eye as he backslaps the owners of Austin-based Gowalla, who talk about how the tax structure was a reason they based the company there. The founder of Gowalla, a young man in skinny jeans, a western shirt, and an ironic neckerchief, is exactly the kind of businessman Perry is delighted to be keeping from California.

Gowalla, an application that runs on smartphones, is a geosocial networking game—a term whose indecipherability to the average reader is inversely proportional to its popularity with the SXSW crowd. If you believe the conventional wisdom about Republicans and technology—that they’re about as well-matched as Jon and Kate Gosselin—Perry should have no clue why Gowalla matters to Texas. But here he is, using a touch-screen smartphone to tell the community of Gowalla users he’s “checking in” at the Texas State Capitol. (Gowalla users might be considered, roughly speaking, as urban, information-age equivalents to hikers who collect badges for their walking sticks from all the places they visit.)

Of course, if you paid attention to the Texas GOP primary, you might not be that surprised. On March 2, Perry beat Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison by more than 20 points with a largely paperless campaign that used no direct mail and almost no yard signs (they were available for purchase upon request). The campaign also did no robo-calls and no newspaper editorial board meetings and focused instead on Internet ads, social networking websites, and person-to-person campaigning.

Perry is just the latest Republican to make headway using technology on the campaign trail, as the party out of power finally learns its way around the Internet. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s campaign was designed with a nod to Barack Obama’s online successes. And Scott Brown’s insurgent campaign for the Senate in Massachusetts showed how potent technology can be for a team that’s low on money but high on energy.

For the Internet prophets on the right, who’ve been nudging Republicans in this direction for years with varying success, 2010 represents the long-awaited alignment of grassroots energy, new technology, and necessity that—dare we say it?—make change possible. A new, young professional class of right-leaning techies is starting firms and notching wins.

For the left, it was the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 that famously kicked off an era of Internet dominance. Though the dream of Dean for America went down in a barbaric yawp, its young talent spread throughout the campaigns of the left laying the foundations for what became Obama’s online success.

A loud, sustained crusade against traditional consultants (“the D.C.-based losers that have helped bring our party to its knees”) from leading liberal blogger and activist Markos Moulitsas Zuniga in 2005 and 2006 also helped web-savvy advisers to take a bigger piece of the market from veteran campaign professionals.

For Republican techies, progress was slower. Though George W. Bush isn’t closely identified with tech savvy, his ’04 team did hold Bush House Parties, organized online, sent volunteers door-knocking with online maps of their neighborhoods, and used commercial databases to micro-target persuadable voters in unlikely areas.

The leaders of the online right are heirs to the micro-targeting effort. But now, instead of identifying likely voters by whether they subscribe to Guns and Ammo, they can target them if their Facebook page identifies them as, say, a white, female, married, NRA member, or a mother of three who volunteers for the PTA and the church soup kitchen.

Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, cofounders of the EngageDC consulting firm, served as deputy webmasters on the ’04 Bush campaign and later as directors of e-campaigns at the RNC. Michael Turk, a partner at the newly founded CRAFT media firm, ran Internet operations for Bush-Cheney ’04 and later served as the first e-campaign director at the RNC. Also at CRAFT is Justin Germany, road videographer for Bush-Cheney ’04 (and the man who created the online ad “The One” for John McCain). Many of them were in Austin for SXSW, mostly under ideological cover among the overwhelmingly left-leaning technological crowd. They networked and hoped the free beer glossed over whatever political disagreements arose.

Given their establishment pedigrees, you might imagine the group would have trouble challenging the status quo, but Finn and Ruffini were among the group of mostly young tech-savvy Republicans who started an online effort to reshape the party at RebuildtheParty.com less than two days after the McCain loss. Founding it alongside them, incidentally, was Rob Willington, who later went on to head Scott Brown’s online efforts and stun the political world.

How did the McDonnell, Perry, and Brown campaigns do it? Internet strategists are prone to shy away from describing “a model, a template” that can be imposed on any race, as CRAFT partner and former Mitch McConnell adviser Jon Henke puts it. But there were some common  techniques used in these three races.

When Bob McDonnell started his primary campaign for the Virginia governorship, he wanted web folks at the table from the start. “He had seen what happened with Barack Obama,” says Vincent Harris, who worked as McDonnell’s online director. “He wanted to make it a priority. Every single thing we wanted online, the campaign gave us.”

The money invested in McDonnell’s online efforts cannot be overlooked. It was a shift in priorities for a Republican campaign, as McDonnell devoted 8 percent of his ad budget to the Internet. He outspent Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds on technology, five to one. In a statistic that’s not necessarily causal, but still interesting, he also won young voters by 10 points. In the past, the problem with Republicans has been that “they don’t invest anything and they’re surprised when they don’t get a return on that non-investment,” says Henke.

McDonnell’s investment was unprecedented, but only until the Scott Brown campaign, which devoted 10 percent of its ad budget to online buys, notably spending more than $230,000 on Google ads, and racking up 60 million ad impressions within Massachusetts. The Brown campaign’s use of Google ads and tools was so extensive that the Google office in D.C. invited Willington for a panel on the subject after Brown’s win. 

For Willington, the use of Google was an invention born of necessity. At the beginning of the campaign, back when it was still “Ted Kennedy’s seat” in the minds of most politicos, Willington told the Hill, “There were like three of us in the office. .  .  . We thought, ‘We have to make ourselves look bigger than we are.’ ”

The use of mobile technology, which Harris said never really hit its stride on the McDonnell campaign, became invaluable for the Brown campaign. Every time their opponent Martha Coakley appeared on a radio show, Brown’s campaign texted supporters with the phone number of the radio station. When Coakley started taking calls, the first few were always Brown supporters. This changed the perception of the race for radio listeners, and succeeded in rattling Coakley, who wasn’t expecting such vocal opposition in the deep-blue state.

A case study of the Brown campaign’s social media presence by Word Stream, a search engine marketing company, actually identified Brown’s momentum before polling or the political class did. Their final count found he had a ten to one advantage in web traffic, ten to one in YouTube views, three to one in Twitter followers, and four to one in Facebook followers.

Perry proclaimed himself a “gadget guy” to a group of Austin technologists over a beer at the Chili Parlor. “It’s a very normal thing for me in my life to be using a GPS when they first came out, and LORAN before that,” referring to the radio-based navigation system that was a precursor of the modern GPS.

His staff says he often surprises people when they see him tweeting on his mobile phone. “Governor Perry has made [technology] a priority in his everyday life. It’s because he can change the way he interacts with the people of Texas,” says Will Franklin, director of new media for the campaign.

Enthusiasm from the candidate was a key for all three campaigns. Henke, who has helped Republicans online for several election cycles, says campaigns are starting to learn that the online communications team is sometimes getting “exponentially more information” from voters by monitoring social networks, and may therefore have “more tactical intelligence.”

Finn and Ruffini, whose firm worked on the McDonnell campaign, wrote in a case study that the traditional strategists had to learn to “treat the online action network [of volunteers] as another headquarters.” Perry strategists held a volunteer boot camp in June, which attracted 500 activists. Staff and volunteers guided tech newbies through signing up for Facebook and Twitter. Franklin said they saw a huge spike in Facebook activity on behalf of the governor after the camp. The campaign also treated bloggers with equal or more consideration than traditional journalists. “We got zero endorsements,” says Perry campaign manager Rob Johnson, with a tone closer to triumphalism than regret. “We circumvented the traditional media.”

The Perry campaign created almost 40,000 “Perry Home Headquarters”—a brigade of volunteers who talked up Perry in their homes and daily lives. Those volunteers were connected not to a field office but to a field officer with whom they interacted online and in person.

The approach bothered some voters, the staff admitted, but it also invigorated voters they didn’t expect. “We cornered these nontraditional Republican primary voters,” Johnson said. “A lot of November Republicans came to vote.”

Finally, the campaigns made it a priority to test their methods and determine what worked. The constant flow of metrics from social media gives instant feedback, as long as strategists are paying attention to it. The McDonnell campaign did an internal audit of its online operations between the primary and the general elections and learned, for instance, that simply adding a request for email addresses and mobile numbers to volunteer scripts increased the campaign’s rolls considerably going into the general election.

The appetite of the Perry team for data analysis is legendary among techies. Their strategists studied Alan Gerber and Donald Green’s Get Out the Vote—an analysis of campaign tactics—before the 2006 election and brought in four professors to Austin to conduct further experiments in 2005. One of the four, James Gimpel, wrote in National Review of their finding that “impersonal modes of contact such as direct mail and automated calls .  .  . were worthless,” despite heavy use in traditional campaigns.

As Gimpel notes, the “jury is still out on just how effective some of these new strategies are,” and whether they can work in all kinds of races, but the experimental spirit certainly worked for the Perry team.

The picture is not entirely rosy. When the Net-savvy folks on the right look out across the ideological divide online, they see gaps. Henke regrets that, after several years of ActBlue’s domination of online fundraising on the left (“$127,207,762 raised online since 2004,” their website boasts), there has been no comparable breakthrough on the right. 

This is partly a question of talent. Developers dedicated to the conservative cause are hard to find, said David Almacy, former White House Internet director under George W. Bush, which means Republican candidates pay more for expertise than opponents. The same holds true for graphic designers, but Almacy says the outlook is improving. Some hope the rise of fiscal issues (and relative decline of social issues) will help attract more libertarian programmers and tech-savvy young people.

The commitment and enthusiasm of party leaders certainly can’t hurt, as the GOP sheds its stodgy image by out-Twittering and out-YouTubing the left, regularly leading Democrats in number of Twitter followers, number of representatives who tweet, and overall online presence.

When it comes to surveying a political Internet movement, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, knows a thing or two. When he watched Scott Brown raise more than $1 million online on January 11, in the right’s first successfully executed “money bomb,” it took him back to his insurgent days, when he was touting Paul Hackett—an anti-Iraq war veteran—in an August 2005 special election for Congress in Ohio’s 2nd District.

“Scott Brown reminds me of Paul Hackett. Like Hackett, Brown will lose, but grassroots [conservatives are] learning how to better organize.” Well, he got the first half of that prediction wrong, but he was right about the organizational lessons.

In retrospect, the left turns out not to have had a natural monopoly on web visionaries. Though they got off to a slower start, there were some visionaries on the right, too, in offices in Washington, in the Texas State Capitol, and even in the Kennedys’ backyard.

When Willington was profiled by the Boston Globe in 2007, the then-executive director of the Republican party in Massachusetts talked about his focus on technology as a way to take the party places no one thought it could go.

“People always shake their head and say, ‘Massachusetts Republican party, boy, that must be difficult.’ We don’t have the governor’s office, we don’t have any of the statewide constitutional offices, the legislature is 87 percent Democrat. I look at that and say, ‘This is exciting.’ ” If the past year is any gauge, it’s about to get a lot more exciting.

Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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