In what appears to be a first in presidential politics, Michele Bachmann’s campaign has five members of its digital team on the ground in Iowa for the Iowa Straw Poll. GOP candidates including Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, and Bachmann appear to be taking digital media efforts seriously as a means of getting people to the poll to be held in Ames, Iowa on Saturday, and capturing data about who’s there.
Bachmann’s camp has sent five digital team members to the Ames area this week in preparation for the big event, where the candidate is hoping for a big win to propel her into the more important Iowa Caucuses that take place in January 2012. The staffers all work for Campaign Solutions, the digital consulting firm handling Bachmann’s online advertising and other digital efforts.
“Things move fast and we can be helpful and coordinate with the people on the ground here,” said Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at the Republican consulting firm. Being physically present is important, he suggested, considering that sophisticated political campaigns have evolved to integrate digital media tactics and strategy with traditional efforts.
“They want a tighter coordination with on-the-ground operations and what we’re doing on the web,” added Frenchman, who handled online ads for John McCain’s 2008 campaign.
The Iowa Straw Poll is traditionally a grassroots, communal sort of event. While political campaigns often run targeted get-out-the-vote ads online to push voters to the polls during other elections, “Vote for Candidate X” ads aren’t necessarily appropriate this time around.
Not Your Typical GOTV Ads
“After being here and seeing how it works, throwing up banner ads and saying, ‘Go out and vote for Michele,’ doesn’t make sense,” said Frenchman.
Instead, many of Bachmann’s online ad messages are focused on the entertainment portion of her straw poll festivities, recognizing a candidate’s appeal is heavily weighted by the caliber of the food and bands at her tent.
Display ads from Bachmann on TheIowaRepublican.com resemble a country music Mount Rushmore featuring the heads of Richie McDonald, Tim Rushlow, Randy Travis, and Christian artist Charles Billingsley. “Do you want to see these artists in Ames?” ask the ads, which link to a page on Bachmann’s site where people can fill out a form indicating their commitment “to stand with Michele at the Ames Straw Poll on August 13.” Some display ads feature the candidate herself.
Much of the GOTV coordination involves getting people to commit to attending, and helping them get to Ames, and many of the candidates’ websites allow people to register for a bus ride. Display ads on The Iowa Republican site from Herman Cain declare, “Stand Up Iowa,” and link to a sign up page for bus rides on his site.
During the 2008 GOP primary season, Ron Paul’s campaign did little to no online advertising. However, his current campaign is starting out early running display ads on Facebook and The Iowa Republican to drive attendance at the straw poll. “Click Here for tickets to support Ron Paul at the CRITICAL Ames, Iowa straw poll this Saturday August 13th,” state Facebook display ads. The Paul camp is also running straw poll search ads on Google, and online display ads on The Iowa Republican.
ClickZ has spotted straw poll-related Google search ads targeting Iowa residents from Rick Santorum asking supporters to “Help Rick Santorum Win The Iowa Straw Poll. Donate $25 To Rick Now.”
Fun, Games – and Data
The Bachmann campaign is also using email, direct mail, and phone calls to mobilize voters. The candidate’s Facebook page features a “Meet Me in Ames” app which allows people to RSVP to “Join Michele at the Iowa Straw Poll and enjoy a free concert featuring Randy Travis, Richie McDonald, Charles Billingsley, & Tim Rushlow!”
Pawlenty is also offering free musical performances from Christian band SonicFlood and local Iowa band The Nadas, but the real draw might be the Dairy Queen Blizzards and Famous Dave’s BBQ they’ll be serving. Still, the ice cream treat is not mentioned in a call script featured on Pawlenty’s volunteer action site, home to a virtual phone bank system allowing supporters from around the country to call Iowans and convince them to vote for him at the poll. The nonbinding vote is for Iowa residents only and conducted in-person.
The phone effort is tied to a game platform that awards volunteers with virtual badges and tangible prizes such as mugs and a Pawlenty hockey jersey. A leaderboard connected to the Facebook profiles of volunteers ranks them according to the number of actions they’ve taken: Five points and an “Advocate” badge for a Facebook post, and 25 points for another Facebook message supporting the candidate, for example.
While applying game elements for campaigns for corporate brands has become trendy, Raynor suggested, “The value proposition is much higher for someone who is a supporter of a political candidate.” He added, “We see the gamification piece of this as the hook for users. The core of what we’re doing is the focus on data and connecting these disparate data points to one user profile,” said Jordan Raynor, VP, media and public affairs for Engage, a Republican digital political firm. “These were previously disconnected data points for political campaigns.”
The gamification platform, developed by Engage, lets campaigns track calls and voter responses, which voters have been contacted by volunteers, and other activities on the campaign site, in order to identify especially active volunteers who might later be tapped to travel to help do door-to-door canvassing, or donate. The campaign can track where volunteer callers are located based on their Zip codes, or segment out which active supporters have yet to donate in order to send a microtargeted fundraising request.
Expect the digital-savvy campaigns in Iowa to try to tie together data gleaned through digital signups and mobilization efforts to the straw poll itself. Who RSVP’d and actually showed up? Who told a volunteer caller or canvasser he’d come but didn’t? For Pawlenty, the idea is to start building a database of key supporters in the state as well as volunteers throughout the country willing to take action on behalf of the campaign.
Much of the data capture happening online about the straw poll voters themselves informs campaigns about their commitment to vote for their candidate. Campaigns want to be as sure as possible that after transporting them to the event, flipping the bill for their $30 attendance fee, and signing them up to participate, voters will choose their candidate.