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How Republicans won the Internet

By Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini
Sunday, January 24, 2010; B01

Scott Brown's supporters became fans of the candidate on Facebook, where they commented on his status updates and uploaded their own photos. The Republican Senate hopeful took to Twitter, using the #masen hashtag to let his followers know how the race was going. His campaign powered its field operation through targeted online ads and Web-based spreadsheets, and raised $12 million from 157,000 individual donations in the last two weeks of the race. After he won last week, his team live-streamed the election-night party in Boston online.

Democratic candidates don't have a monopoly on online organizing anymore. Brown and his campaign staffers deserve the credit for proving this, but it's a reason to celebrate for us and our new-media colleagues, too -- we've been working to get the GOP into the Web era for the past decade. We've been laughed out of high-level campaign meetings, told that online budgets are the first thing to go and informed that having a Facebook page is "unpresidential." And it wasn't until recently that people stopped asking us to fix their computers.

But we've always had faith that the rightroots could organize for victory, as the netroots had on the left. It just needed some nurturing. And now that it's launched Sen.-elect Brown in Massachusetts, the online-organizing playing field is more even than it's ever been in the past 10 years of American politics.

From the beginning of the race, Brown's campaign knew its candidate was a long shot. To have any hope, his team needed to get his message directly to voters. This populist approach -- and the hope for a 41st Senate vote against the Democrats' health-care overhaul -- inspired the rightroots to latch onto Brown's campaign through blogs, Facebook and Twitter. This paid off in an overflow of volunteers and contributors from across the country and a nearly five-point victory.

It's not as though GOP organizers woke up last fall and realized they'd better learn to use this Internet thing. Our party is out of power -- and the party out of power has the stronger incentive to innovate. If it doesn't, the base will. Netroots protests dragged the Democratic Party into the 21st century kicking and screaming in 2006 and 2008. Frustrated with the president and health-care reform, the conservative "tea party" movement has done the same for the Republicans in the past year.

Howard Dean ran the first hair-raising netroots campaign in 2004. The former Vermont governor didn't secure the Democratic presidential nomination, but his online strategy emboldened his party. Democrats embraced meet-ups. They came to rely on Internet contributions, and they kicked off 2005 with a 50-state strategy and a score of new new-media institutions. They were mad as hell and they weren't going to take it anymore; it was time to use the most effective tool available to overtake the Republicans. The Internet was and is that medium.

Meanwhile, Republicans appeared way behind the times. It's not that the GOP is any less capable of using technology than the Democrats are. It was just that during the years that the netroots really took off -- 2004 to 2008 -- Republicans were not angry enough (or desperate enough) to use all the weapons in their arsenal. A single, unifying outrage, like the Democrats' opposition to the Iraq war and to President George W. Bush, was missing.

We tried. We explained how important it was to reach voters where they are. But lockstep support for White House policies does not inspire a national political movement.

Now, of course, the White House belongs to a different party. And we didn't have to wait for 2010 or 2012 to take action. There was a governor's race in Virginia and another in New Jersey last fall -- and then the Massachusetts special election. In those contests, Republican candidates thoroughly embraced Web tools and ran circles around the opposition online -- and it paid off.

Before the GOP's recent grass-roots revival, top-down thinking was on full display in many campaigns for which we worked. Even after the Obama campaign's initial success online in 2008, Republican staffers responded to our calls for a movement-based approach with a dismissive tone. "We don't care about building a base," said one. "We care about raising money."

Even among the GOP consultants and top strategists who paid lip service to the Internet, it was, to many of them, simply another avenue for executing a dusty playbook, written in a different era. In many campaigns, even today, there's an unspoken assumption that though Facebook, Twitter and a Web site are necessary, they also are not terribly consequential (except as online ATM machines). The "real" work of politics goes on behind closed doors, in fundraisers, where progress is measured in increments of $2,400.

Recently, these traditional impulses have reasserted themselves -- in the Democratic Party. When San Francisco's Twittering mayor, Gavin Newsom, withdrew from the California governor's race last October, political strategists charged that it was because he had placed too much emphasis on new media. Newsom's former top strategist, Garry South, scoffed that "the Newsom campaign was living proof that you cannot depend entirely or mostly on the Internet or social-networking sites to run a competitive campaign at this level." Translation: Web geeks should just buzz off and leave the real work to the adults with Rolodexes.

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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