May 17, 2013

Let us pity, for a moment, Virginia’s political consultants. Faced with an election each and every year, they must somehow gin up new and creative ways to peddle their clients to voters who are either uninterested in or exhausted by politics. The consultants’ lot has gotten even harder of late with the rise of alternative media and social networks. The days of TV buys and direct mail carrying the campaign’s message are over. Now campaigns must get their message out in real time, often in 140 characters or fewer.

All right, moment’s over. Consultants get paid too well for more sympathy than that. Now let’s see how they and their clients are adapting to this new, fast and often cruel world of instant communication.

Virginia’s Republicans are horrible at social media. Their conversations, when they deign to have them with their readers and followers, are buttoned-up and cautious. With few exceptions — complaints by Republican lieutenant governor candidate Sen. Steve Martin (11th district) on Facebook are becoming must-reads — what they post are statements: “Thanks to the good folks of Buffalo Gap for hosting me at their chamber of commerce meeting on Thursday.” Um, sure.

Democrats are much better at engaging their audiences online, and Virginia Democrats have been especially eager to do so. In the 2005 gubernatorial contest between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore, Kaine was the first candidate not only to reach out to bloggers but also to treat them like press. By contrast, I had one Senate Republican committee chairman tell me a couple of years ago that he didn’t understand this blogging thing at all. I can only imagine what he thinks of platforms like Twitter.

And it’s on Twitter that the real fun of this campaign cycle is happening. Consider the example of Aneesh Chopra, one of the Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor.

His Twitter feed is one long conversation with his nearly 15,000 followers. He responds to their comments and frequently retweets them to his audience. He cracks jokes, makes asides and even drops the occasional restaurant recommendation. It all serves to make his Twitter followers feel like he’s not just talking with them but also treating them as friends.

That can pay substantial benefits. Earlier in the week, Chopra tweeted that he had a new television ad coming out. It features him walking the wrong way on an escalator to illustrate his policy points. Like every politician debuting an ad, he wanted people to watch it, talk about it and share it on their own social networks.

A Republican candidate might have said, “Here’s my new ad. Please share it.” Simple, to the point and boring.

Chopra prefaced his appeal with a quip: “Fun fact: I walked more than 4,800 steps on that escalator.”

My response when I

read that: He did what now? Even though I’m not a Chopra fan, his note intrigued me enough to click on the link and watch the ad. I wasn’t alone. The ad has been viewed on YouTube more than 1,300 times. For a down-ticket candidate with low name recognition and a primary election still ahead of him, those are pretty good numbers.

How do the Republicans compare? Gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s most recent TV ad — in which he sketches his plan to cut tax rates and close the tax loopholes of the “well-connected” — has been seen just more than 2,000 times. That’s not bad either, except when you consider the backstory: He’s a high-profile candidate, and I received three news releases telling me about the ad, one of which even had the entire script written out. A lot more effort on the Cuccinelli campaign’s part for only somewhat better results.

Still, Cuccinelli’s attempts have already come a long way. In December, his campaign stumbled with the comparatively ancient technology of e-mail. It began with a note in my inbox from George Allen. The headline, though, was odd: “My Campaign’s First Critical Fundraising Deadline is December 31st.” The late Allen campaign has no such thing, having lost the November Senate election to Kaine. Still, intrigued, I opened the e-mail to find this disclaimer right at the top:

“Please find a special message from one of our advertisers, Ken Cuccinelli for Gorvernor [sic]. Please note that the following message reflects the opinions and representations of our advertiser alone, and not necessarily the opinion or editorial positions of George Allen.”

I had never seen its like before: a fundraising e-mail determined to fail. (Still, it was better than a print mail piece the Cuccinelli campaign sent out to supporters not long after the 2012 elections. It was a fine piece, except for the return envelope, which had “George Allen for U.S. Senate” printed on it. Ouch.)

All is not yet lost. Republicans are getting better at social media and are even showing a few innovations. Attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain had his teenage daughter write first-person accounts from the campaign trail. It was an innovative and engaging approach to campaign messaging.

Lieutenant governor candidate Pete Snyder, a social media pioneer, has had a thriving online presence. He’s comfortable with Twitter and Facebook. And giving the “Pig Rig” barbecue cooker that he takes with him on the campaign trail its own Twitter feed? A stroke of genius.

For all these new ways of reaching voters, though, the old ways are still sometimes the best. Republican attorney general candidate Rob Bell is one of the few politicians out there who sends people handwritten notes. Through the mail, live postage stamp and all.

It’s so retro, it’s cool. And it could be the next big thing.

The writer is an editor and blogger for BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.”