By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
On the Twittering, Facebooking, widgety frontier of politics, one of the webbiest sites this campaign season was born just a few days ago: a 24/7 online town hall, where voters, via text or video, can help craft their party's platform.
Surprise! It isn't the Democrats.
GOPPlatform2008.com was built by a team headed by Cyrus Krohn, a veteran of Microsoft and Yahoo who's proving to be one of the GOP's most important Internet gurus. At the new site, users can send their thoughts on the party's platform and suggestions for issues that the GOP should tackle. Anyone can participate, Republican or not. Though a staff screens vulgar and distasteful submissions, it's still the riskiest thing the Republican National Committee has ever done online.
Krohn calls it "the crowning achievement" of his year-long tenure so far.
His small, cramped office is on the first floor of the RNC's headquarters on Capitol Hill. "To Vote Democrat is 'Risky' Business," reads a sticker taped on his door. Photos of Dan Quayle, Larry King and Pat Buchanan line the walls, harking back to his days as a White House intern and at CNN working on "Larry King Live" and "Crossfire." Three computer screens sit on the desk.
Krohn is the RNC's eCampaign director. Or, in the words of his boss, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, "He's helping bring our party to the 21st century."
Quite a task, Krohn knows. The Dems have captured most of the buzz ever since Howard Dean's Internet-fueled campaign, rallying their troops and raising loads of cash online. During the primaries, the GOP famously dithered about whether to hold a YouTube debate in which voters submitted questions by video. It surely doesn't help that John McCain confesses to being a computer "illiterate" or that one of his aides felt compelled to state publicly last month that "John McCain is aware of the Internet."
"People were Twittering me from California minutes after that happened," Krohn says. Though he doesn't work directly for McCain, Krohn feels the heat. The Internet trials of McCain and the GOP are usually accompanied by a question that sticks like July's sultry heat: Are Republicans behind online?
"I often get asked that," Krohn says, "and I never really know how to answer it."
"It depends on what your definition of 'behind' is," Krohn told a group of college students visiting Capitol Hill recently. "If you look at people who are spending countless hours developing user-generated content, then, yeah, we're behind. But in terms of activity in the blogosphere, I think we're at parity, if not better."
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With his unlined face and ear-to-ear smile, Krohn could easily pass as a 20-something technocrat. But at 37 -- and a father of two with a third on the way -- he's actually one of the elder statesmen in the small but growing class of online political operatives in Washington.
An Army brat, Krohn was born in Fairfax and graduated from Lynchburg College, where he majored in communications and played lacrosse. Aside from sports, it was computers, especially the Internet, that intrigued him.
"Years ago, way before YouTube or MySpace, it was all about connecting," Krohn says. "You go on the Net to connect with people."
He's a self-described "black sheep" -- a Jewish Republican. National security has always been the issue that concerned him most. But in the early days, when people such as Krohn foresaw the Web's potential to affect politics, the focus was less on ideology and more on simply spreading the word.
His online experience goes back more than a decade. After the liberal pundit Michael Kinsley left "Crossfire" to start Slate at Microsoft, he hired Krohn, then a "Crossfire" producer, as his first employee. "He was a go-getter, a hustler," Kinsley says of Krohn. "And the thing about Cyrus is, everyone likes him -- Republicans and Democrats."
Krohn eventually became Slate's publisher. He also dabbled in writing at the online zine, and in ways that might not have pleased his own party. Krohn penned a column headlined "Bush Unbuttoned!" in July 1996 after reading a book called "Unlimited Access," touted as an FBI agent's account of a morally bankrupt Clinton White House run by bubble gum-blowing, feet-on-their-desks 30-somethings. What he witnessed in his few months as an intern in the Bush I White House, it turns out, wasn't all prim and proper. "Bubble gum does seem a bit childish; we Bush staffers preferred beer," Krohn wrote. "Four or five times that summer, the White House kitchen staff wheeled ice-cold brew right to our offices, and more than once staffers -- some of them underaged -- drank enough to pass out for the night."
He spent years selling politicians and their staffers on the value of advertising online, and, to his chagrin, more Democrats than Republicans took the plunge. While at MSN.com during the 2000 presidential race, Krohn negotiated a deal with Bill Bradley's campaign to create one of the first online political videos. From his desk, the former New Jersey senator looked at a camera. "Hi, I'm Bill Bradley, and if you're watching this, that means you're on the Internet," Krohn remembers Bradley saying. Later at Yahoo, where he directed the online portal's 2008 election strategy from its Santa Monica, Calif., office, he met with Clinton and Obama staffers to persuade them to use Yahoo's services.
It was a comfy life, living 12 blocks from the beach, and (though Yahoo has been less than stable in the past year) a comfy job, too, with stock options, and a cubicle that overlooked the ocean. But when he heard about the opening at the RNC last spring, he was ready to make a change.
"Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to leave Santa Monica," Krohn says. "But ever since 9/11, I've always wanted to do something for the country, and for my party. My thinking was: If I could actually help the party through my experience with technology, then why not? What am I doing helping Democrats win the White House if I could be helping my own party?"
Within a few weeks, he packed his family, moved back East and wrote an e-mail to friends and colleagues with the subject line "Goodbye Yahoo, Hello White House?"
His wife of 12 years, Jennifer, thought "it was nuts." "But I've learned to believe in his career decisions," she says.
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Krohn's first priority for the six staffers in the eCampaign division was revamping the RNC's main site, GOP.com. A good site, he says, is like a buffet. "There's gotta be something for everyone." He has two groups to serve: an older audience that just wants to find information, and a younger one that expects to interact with the content. After the revamped site's launch, he turned his attention to the grass-roots-centric portal MyGOP, the RNC's answer to the Democratic National Committee's PartyBuilder.
Then micro-sites under GOP.com that targeted Obama were created -- with mixed success.
In early May, CanWeAsk.com allowed users to pose text and video questions for Obama. Though Krohn says more than 70,000 submissions were sent, many couldn't be posted on the site. "They weren't appropriate" is all he'd say. By Tuesday, only nine videos had been posted.
Last month, MeetBarackObama.com went live. On the site, a link labeled "Dr. NObama" leads to questions about Obama's position on offshore oil drilling. More creatively, there are widgets that anyone can post on their own blog. One features a clock counting the time (48 days 03 hours, also as of Tuesday afternoon) since Obama was invited to joint town hall meetings by McCain. Krohn says about 100,000 unique visitors went to the site on its first three days.
Krohn is the third person to head the RNC's eCampaign division. Patrick Ruffini, who served for about a year and a half, preceded him; he left and advised Rudy Giuliani in his primary run. Michael Turk, who ran President Bush's online operation in the 2004 campaign, inaugurated the job and lasted less than a year. Turk left when he butted heads with senior officials "about the direction and purpose" of the eCampaign division, he says. For one, he wanted to continue producing videos that "looked raw and informal and less like television."
Kelley McCullough, then RNC's chief of staff, said she disagreed with the strategy. In an interview, she declined to talk about Turk but said, "We understood the importance of developing a robust eCampaign at the RNC."
To outside observers, it seems that Krohn has been given more leeway than his predecessors. Under Krohn, GOP.com competes directly with Democrats.org, the DNC's online headquarters, they say.
"No doubt it, he's providing a level of expertise that we have not had in the party," says Soren Dayton of the PR firm New Media Strategies and co-founder of TheNextRight.com, a new conservative blog. "This is a guy who comes from the high-tech and media world. He actually understands how people consume media, how people interact with technology."
But Michael Bassik, head of interactive marketing at MSHC Partners, a Democratic communications firm, says Krohn can only do so much.
"Sure, you can build the best, most sophisticated, most interactive political site out there," Bassik says. "But at the end of the day, what counts online are the eyeballs. And objectively speaking, it seems that the Democrats are getting more eyeballs, at least right now."
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The way Krohn sees it, GOP.com is supposed to take a back seat to JohnMcCain.com.
But conservative online political operatives who've nervously watched BarackObama.com-- and, more specifically, the social networking portal MyBarackObama -- say Obama doesn't need Democrats.org. McCain, meanwhile, needs all the help he can get from GOP.com.
Though McCain's site is cleanly and attractively designed, with a vibrant blogging community, it lacks certain features. For instance, Obama's text messaging program is prominently placed on his home page and he regularly sends text messages to collect Zip codes and mobilize supporters. McCain, in contrast, doesn't have a text program.
Krohn bristles at the criticism of McCain's eCampaign team. For instance, he says, "both parties are still too TV-obsessed."
"The use of TV in campaigns is kind of like our dependency on foreign oil. We know we have to get off it. We know we need to find alternative energy sources. But we keep on going back to the pump," Krohn continues. "Fact is, we need to develop a higher degree of comfort with allocating media dollars to the Web."
Last summer, he got the chance to test the effectiveness of the Internet as a stand-alone campaign tool. With the permission of the RNC's senior staff, Krohn zeroed in on the Louisiana gubernatorial race. Then-Rep. Bobby Jindal was an attractive candidate, Krohn says, and it was projected to be a tight race. For 3 1/2 months, using online micro-targeting and data-matching, he identified a set of voters and turned them out to the polls.
Statewide turnout for the Louisiana race was 46 percent. Of those voters who interacted with Krohn's online targeting -- he won't say how much of the total vote -- 76 percent voted, he claims. Krohn says he's not suggesting that the RNC is responsible for Jindal's win. What it does suggest, however, is that the model could have significant impact on voter turnout, he adds.
"Everyone is talking about Obama and his success with the youth vote. Well, there's a significant older demographic on the Web, and what I was able to do in Louisiana is identify and interact with an older voting bloc," Krohn says.
"With all the attention on YouTube and Facebook, I think we've become pretty dismissive of portals like AOL or Yahoo because they're perceived as passe. But how can you be dismissive of tens of millions of potential voters? Especially older voters who are more likely to vote for McCain?"
Still, it's the young voters that keep him awake at night in his rowhouse in Old Town Alexandria, a block off the Potomac, across the street from former Democratic governor Mark Warner.
"I can't ignore the youth vote," Krohn continues. "How do we captivate the hearts and minds of younger people on the Internet? They're not watching TV ads, they're not listening to the radio, Rush Limbaugh isn't necessarily their god. And they're the voters of tomorrow, of 2012, of 2016, of 2020. How do we develop a dialogue with them?"