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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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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.

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