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How Republicans won the Internet

South's statement betrays the defensive mentality of the consultant class, which raises the straw man of Internet-obsessed campaigns (no rational person we know would suggest Facebook as the only tool a campaign should use) while advocating a narrow strategy that spends 70 percent or more of a campaign's budget on a single medium, television.

That kind of thinking has already been proved wrong. As GOP campaigns struggled to enter the 21st century -- even well into its first decade -- the Obama team built an agile online machine. The results spoke for themselves: $500 million raised online, a 13 million-address e-mail list and 3 million text-message subscribers collected thanks to a clever gambit to announce Barack Obama's vice presidential pick via text. When McCain staffers advocated a similar approach, they were told that the impact of a vice presidential announcement could be maximized only through a television event.

In the wake of the 2008 election, after four years of aloofness from most of our party's leaders about the role of new media and technology in electoral politics, we took a break from the day to day of campaigns and thought seriously about how to help our party move forward.

We outlined a strategy; it had a lot to do with technology, but it wasn't just about social networking, e-mail list management or YouTube. We talked about decentralizing the GOP and running a candidate in all 435 congressional districts. That got us some bewildered reactions: I thought this was about the Internet -- what's this about running in every district?

Such responses revealed a mind-set that for too long has prevented the party from innovating: wedded to the status quo and out of touch with the American experience. (One could draw parallels to the policy front as well.)

The Internet isn't a line item in a campaign budget anymore. It's not just something you have to pay for, underneath catering and radio ads. It has reorganized the way Americans do everything -- including elect their leaders. Candidates who would have had no chance before the Internet can now overcome huge odds, with the people they energize serving as the backbone of their campaign.

We don't have it all figured out. Like the technology companies whose products we rely on, the only way forward is to innovate constantly. Campaigns must continually update their playbooks.

But our party seems finally to be catching up -- just in time for 2010 and 2012.

Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini are partners at Engage, an online political consulting firm in Washington. They worked on Bob McDonnell's campaign for governor in Virginia, and their company provided fundraising technology to Scott Brown's Senate campaign. They will be online to chat with readers on Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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