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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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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 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.

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