It’s fitting that the head of a coalition promoting digital strategies to Republican campaigns also runs the Web campaign for Scott Brown, the Republican hoping to score an upset in today’s special Massachusetts Senate election. A lot rides on this one. If Brown does the unthinkable — fills Senator Edward Kennedy’s former seat — it would end the Democratic supermajority in the chamber, and could unravel healthcare reform.
Not only has Massachusetts not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, has party heavyweights behind her effort. Supporting her are key unions, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in addition to the President himself and his campaign’s prized database of supporters now housed by the Democratic National Committee. However, while the Coakley campaign has an entrenched political operation behind it, Brown’s bootstrapped campaign has come from behind through a wave of local and national grassroots support, fueled in part by online advertising, social media engagement, and Web video.
Today the campaign needs that national online support to transform into local, get-out-the-vote volunteers willing to knock on doors and make phone calls. On Thursday, the campaign launched a highly targeted display ad effort aimed at people living within 30 miles of its 10 regional field offices across the state. The ads, delivered using the “Google network blast” or “surge” tactic, include messages specific to each region; ads targeted to people living near Plymouth, Massachusetts, encourage supporters to “Volunteer in Plymouth.”
“We have targeted towns that we want to win,” said Rob Willington, Brown’s online campaign strategist and executive director of RebuildTheParty.com, the organization formed after the ’08 elections to educate Republicans about digital campaign tools and techniques.
“When you need to conserve funds, targeting becomes extremely important,” said Mindy Finn, partner at Engage, a Washington, D.C.-based digital consultancy that serves right-leaning campaigns. The company is handling Brown’s online fundraising effort, which has attracted headlines for its success.
“The best way to motivate voters is through personal contact,” said Willington, also former executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
But without communication with the team on the ground, field offices wouldn’t be prepared for the influx of volunteers the Brown campaign expects. “I went to the political guys and said, ‘This is what I’m doing’…I had to give them a heads up,” explained Willington, suggesting the people running the field offices needed to be prepared for a last-minute rush of new volunteers.
Building the GOP of the Future
While special elections have unique factors that don’t translate to all campaigns, Willington believes the Brown campaign could inform future Republican efforts, in part because of the tight integration of campaign divisions. “I’ve had a seat at the table with every department, with every meeting…Web, communications, finance, everyone,” he said.
Because the Brown camp has grabbed the attention of Republicans across the country it may help push adoption of backend digital campaign strategies and tools like Google Docs that could help GOP campaigns in the all-important 2010 elections.
Until now, the Google blast tactic has been used just before an election to remind voters to go to the polls. The tactic involves one advertiser running display ads in most or all of the Google content network pages generated within a brief period, targeting a specific geographic area. The Brown blast appears to be the first to promote volunteering.
“The biggest challenge for Scott is that our voters don’t know election day is January 19,” said Willington, who told ClickZ News the Brown campaign’s fundraising success last week enabled him to be more creative with his approach to using the blast. On Monday, January 11, the campaign launched its “Money Bomb” campaign, a one-day online fundraising effort originally intended to raise $500,000. By midday, momentum was so strong, the campaign decided to push for $750,000, and in the end garnered more than $1.3 million that day. It was reported the campaign rose millions more throughout the week.
The Importance of Fundraising and Social Media Momentum
The grassroots fundraising success was especially important, as the national GOP and National Republican Senatorial Committee reportedly has not provided the Brown campaign with the level of financial support other Senate candidates have received in the past.
“The campaign started off as a light campaign,” said Willington. “It’s entirely independently run by our operation.”
The grassroots momentum is also evident on YouTube, where individual Brown supporters and a group called Conservative New Media have featured amateur videos in YouTube’s paid Promoted Videos search results. A promoted video from Coakley’s side — a TV ad from the Service Employees International Union — was paid for by the union, a powerful force behind the campaign.
Brown’s own YouTube channel has a huge lead compared to Coakley’s. By Sunday, Brown’s channel videos had been viewed over 460,000 times compared to Coakley’s 51,170. Video has been especially beneficial for Brown, a charismatic candidate who won Cosmopolitan’s “America’s Sexiest Man” contest in 1982.
“When there’s just a handful of state or local races, the national activists can get involved in a way they can’t otherwise,” said Colin Delany, founder, Epolitics.com, adding, “In special elections of any kind, the normal dynamics don’t really apply because you have so many outside groups trying to influence it.”
Those outside forces could be contributing to Brown’s social media strength. On Facebook, the Brown campaign leapt from nearly 49,000 fans Friday to over 68,000 Sunday. His Twitter followers grew from 7,775 to 9,345 in that time. Meanwhile, Coakley’s Facebook fans grew from around 10,400 Friday to 13,100 Sunday; on Twitter, her followers increased from around 2,800 Friday to around 3,200 Sunday.
According to Willington, Brown had already built a “good foundation across the state” on Facebook in his current position as a state senator.