I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much here, but why can’t the GOP come up with a social media strategy whose primary goal is to enlarge the party, not just connect a set of declining influencers in the political marketspace. It’s not about the number of friends, it’s about the number of influencers and tastemakers that make up one’s social network. On that matter, the GOP is in desparate need of something new and relevant. Not being one to just be a complainer, I’m steadily working on it so stay tuned. — Patrick
Playing Catch-Up, the GOP Is All Atwitter About the Internet
Republican Hopefuls Ponder a ‘Tech Gap’; Chuck DeVore’s ‘Tweets’ Raise Campaign Cash
At a recent debate, the candidates to become chairman of the Republican National Committee were asked — after rattling off how many guns they own — whether they have any “followers” on Twitter, the popular online social network for short messages.
They didn’t miss a beat.
“Yes, the number is growing last time I checked — 300 to 400,” replied candidate Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland. Users of the site keep track of posts, or “tweets,” from other users by becoming their followers.
Another candidate, Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he would be Twittering away at that very moment if it weren’t for the debate rules. “I’m just not doing it today because you told us we couldn’t,” he said.
RNC Chair Candidates on the Web
Click on number of contacts for link to candidate’s page.
|Facebook friends||Twitter followers||Blog||Rebuild the Party contacts|
Then Ken Blackwell, a former secretary of state of Ohio, trumped them both. “I do Twitter, but let me just say I have 4,000 friends on Facebook, which is probably more than these two guys put together, but who’s counting?”
As the Republican Party rebuilds after its defeat at the polls in November, the discussion has centered not so much on honing its message as on messaging — on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. In previous elections, the GOP often used technology in targeting voters more effectively than Democrats did; now the party is playing catch-up. RNC members, meeting in Washington, are scheduled to elect a party chairman on Friday.
“When you get beat, you look at where you got beat and double down on improving that area,” says Cyrus Krohn, the RNC’s director of e-campaigning. “The Internet is the place you can look at and say there’s room for improvement.”
Within days of the election, a technology consultant in Nashville, Tenn., started a Web site devoted to getting Republicans on Twitter, spotlighting which of the 168 RNC voting-members use the tool (last count: 20). A conservative strategist issued a 10-point action plan for rebuilding the party, declaring the No. 1 priority to be “winning the technology war with the Democrats.”
Mike Duncan, the incumbent RNC chairman running for re-election, was pressed during a recent interview with conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt about the perceived “tech gap” between the two parties.
After Mr. Duncan, 57, called the gap a “big myth,” Mr. Hewitt pressed him.
“Are you on Twitter, by the way, Mike Duncan?” asked Mr. Hewitt, himself a heavy Twitterer.
“I do not Twitter,” replied Mr. Duncan, who explained that he doesn’t like to be distracted by Twitter while talking to people. Many like to use the tool during conferences or other events. “But we have the capability here in the building — a lot of the guys here do it.”
He added that he does carry two BlackBerrys and enjoys using a Kindle, the handheld device for downloading digital books.
Some Republicans worry that all the tech talk is overshadowing more fundamental tasks, like recruiting new candidates and broadening the party’s appeal. The Obama-Biden campaign’s innovative use of new online tools, namely social networking, texting and video, helped raise money and organize volunteers. But the percentage of voters contacted by the campaign was about the same as the Democratic presidential ticket did fours years before, according to some surveys, they point out.
“If there’s someone out there who votes for the candidate who Twitters more, then we need to take away his voter-registration card,” says Michael Palmer, who headed the new media operations for the McCain-Palin campaign.
With some exceptions, Sen. John McCain’s campaign incorporated the same new tech features as its Democratic rivals, he argues. But more people used the Democratic ticket’s social-networking tools because its supporters tended to be younger, he says.
“Our soccer moms might pay their bills online, but they probably won’t spend six hours a day on Facebook,” says Mr. Palmer, 28.
Jon Henke, who advised former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson on new-media efforts last year in his brief presidential run, agrees tech savviness is only a means to an end.
“The party right now is like someone seeing their neighbor buy a shiny new truck, and wanting one, too,” says Mr. Henke, 34. “But then not realizing the neighbor has something to haul.”
He added the Internet’s bottom-up nature is more suited to the opposition and grass-roots insurgents, something Republicans are now forced to become.
Few have internalized that message more than a little-known California assemblyman named Chuck DeVore.
The 46-year-old former aerospace-company executive has already begun contesting the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer, who faces re-election in 2010, by putting much of his daily routine online.
He regularly updates his Facebook status on his BlackBerry, which automatically appears on his Twitter account, as well as on the site devoted to getting Republicans on Twitter, called topconservativesontwitter.org. (His 924 followers rank him 389th on that site.)
Mr. DeVore says his campaign, with little funding and facing a well-known incumbent, depends on steadily building word of mouth. He says he has modeled his campaign on that of President Barack Obama, who is often referred to as the first “Internet president.”
“Chuck is using his nuclear-powered lawn mower while his faithful dog supervises,” he posted Sunday afternoon, referring to the electricity in his neighborhood coming from a nearby nuclear power station. Mr. DeVore supports the use of nuclear energy.
But the constant posting has led to more than idle chatter. His commentary on everything from greenhouse-gas emissions to laws banning cellphone use in cars have led to national television appearances on shows including “Dr. Phil” and “Nova.”
He couldn’t afford to pay for similar publicity through traditional radio or TV advertising, he says, particularly over such a long campaign.
Raising a Few Bucks
He believes he’s the first politician to raise money on Twitter, estimating he received more than $1,600 in 24 hours in early December, with an average donation of close to $20. Much of that effort was led by his first hire, Justin Hart, a former blogger for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
“We don’t expect to raise big dollars from this, but we do get street cred and a base to build on,” says Mr. Hart, 37, who joined Mr. DeVore after several other tech strategists turned him down.
Mr. DeVore has written an online movie review for a conservative Hollywood Web site to gain name recognition in that traditionally liberal town. He called Tom Cruise’s “Valkyrie” a film with “soul and dignity.” He first developed his online promotional skills earlier this decade in marketing a novel he co-wrote, called “China Attacks,” about an invasion of Taiwan.
A campaign consultant of Mrs. Boxer says the three-term Democratic senator also uses a variety of online tools and has collected more than 300,000 email addresses of supporters. Some well-known Republicans could soon enter the race, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. boss. But Mr. DeVore thinks his online approach gives him a chance.
“There are still a fair number of Republicans that haven’t thought about using these things yet,” says Mr. DeVore. “I say to them, ‘Look, it won’t make a bad candidate good, but you need to start doing this.'”
Write to Christopher Rhoads at firstname.lastname@example.org