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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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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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