The meme-ification of the GOP

Republicans have embraced the meme. The day gun-control legislation failed in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) posted this image to his Facebook page:

As BuzzFeed noted, the meme -- which got over 5,000 "likes" -- originated on a Comedy Central blog post making fun of McConnell. This Monday, two days after Obama joked that no one would want to have a drink with the Kentucky Republican, McConnell responded on Twitter with a photo of himself, a beer, a glass of red wine and an empty chair. Copied on the tweet -- Clint Eastwood.

That picture has itself been turned into a meme -- Submit your #ObamaDrink photo and win a drink with the senator.

The "Red Tape Tower" that McConnell and other Republicans have used to demonstrate the complexity of Obamacare regulations has its own Facebook page ("I'm 7ft tall, weigh 300lbs and I'm your worst nightmare...") and Twitter feed.

"Voters are on social media not to interact with their elected officials but to engage with the drama and the gossip of their social network," said Vincent Harris, a digital strategist working for McConnell's reelection campaign. He referenced Post-Broadcast Democracy, an academic study of the way the expanded media environment has made it harder to reach voters by traditional means. "This persuasion by entertainment, this combining of levity and pop culture with politics and issue messaging, is very effective."

Nowhere is the emphasis on Internet savvy more evident than on the National Republican Congressional Committee Web site, which has been made over with BuzzFeed style headlines: "11 of the Worst Things Your Tax Dollars Are Being Wasted On" or "How House Republicans Are Saving More Taxpayer Money — In One CHIF (Chart Made of a GIF)."

"It's mostly just packaging traditional messaging in a way that isn't completely boring," said NRCC Digital Director Gerrit Lansing of the focus on "snackable content" -- a marketing term for short, picture-heavy, easily digestible bits of information. Traffic to the committee's Web site in the first three months of 2013 is 52 percent higher than it was in the three months before the election. While the BuzzFeed-inspired redesign is new, it's been a year since the committee moved to photo-driven messages on Facebook, which is how most people find the site. (BuzzFeed, helpfully has provided a guide to "13 Ways Republicans Can Win The Internet" -- which by its very existence shows that there's an audience on the right for this kind of stuff.)

Liz Mair, a Republican new-media strategist who worked at the Republican National Committee in 2008, says she has been advocating for the use of memes for years. After Republicans lost two presidential elections, she said, "there is a recognition in the party generally that perhaps continuing to do things the same way we always did, business as usual, isn't actually going to yield many dividends." That attitude is giving more aggressive staffers "a lot of latitude" to try new things.

Memes can drive traffic, but can they change minds? McConnell's campaign is trying to find out. They're working with CrowdVerb, a Republican data firm that aims to capture the emotional reactions on social media. The campaign has also launched a Facebook rewards program that would give them access to supporters' Facebook data -- something Obama used to great success in his 2012 campaign.

Obama uses memes, too:

Laura Olin, who ran social media for the Obama campaign, was dismissive of the Republican approach to memes.

"I think most of what they do is mean-spirited or feels like it's trying too hard, which is not the kind of stuff people are most predisposed to share with their friends," Olin said. Beyond that, she argued, "LOLcat fonts and Lindsay Lohan references" won't attract more young voters to the GOP.

But Obama campaign digital director Teddy Goff was more hospitable. "If they can find a way to provide people with content, tools and experiences that inspire them to get and stay involved ... then I expect they'll enjoy the same benefits that we did," he said.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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