Outlook: 'Out of the wilderness, onto the Web'

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Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini
Political Consultants
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 11:00 AM

Political consultants Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini were online Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss their Outlook article titled "Out of the wilderness, onto the Web."

Finn and 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.

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Mindy Finn: Here with Patrick Ruffini and ready to take your questions re: the GOP and new media.

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Geneva, Ill.: Do you think part of the reluctance of the "consultant class" to embrace the Web is due in part to any differences in their revenue model (i.e., that media consultants oftent get paid as a percentage of the media buy)?

Patrick Ruffini: Short answer: yes.

We've sometimes seen resistance to online ad budgets of 10-15% of the overall media budget. You wouldn't think that a marginal cut in traditional TV like that would cause heartburn, when there's hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, it can.

However, I'm hopeful that more and more consultants will see the light that the Internet actually expands the overall pie. The Brown campaign had more than enough money to spend on TV because of all they raised online. And David Axelrod certainly didn't lack for a TV budget in the '08 campaigns.

Beyond just money, I also think the Internet represents a potential loss of control over the message that media consultants (who generally like to impose a tight script on a candidate) need to get more comfortable with.

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Cleveland, Ohio: What strategies did you recommend to the Brown campaign that you think other campaigns can replicate going into November?

Mindy Finn: The Scott Brown campaign had an amazing team on the ground who started off with the motivation and the knowledge to run an innovative, high-touch campaign. I want to make sure to give credit where it's due, and that's with the team on the ground. Nevertheless, the techniques we helped with involved tracking and targeting their online fundraising efforts. Through our online fundraising platform, the Brown campaign could see what was driving the most support, both in terms of issues and messages and in terms of specific sources. For example, individual candidates across the country had an extra incentive to send emails on behalf of Brown b/c using a unique fundraising initiative, they could measure their impact. Also, rather than running display advertising on sites a la carte and on a cost-per-impressions basis, the campaign bought online search and display ads on a cost-per-click model, targeted to specific towns where they needed to ramp up their grassroots operations.

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Boston, Mass. : How big a role did local Massachusetts blogs factor into Scott Brown's win last Tuesday?

Patrick Ruffini: Red Mass Group (http://www.redmassgroup.com) had a huge impact on the narrative of the race. As you might expect, they were the first to make the argument that Brown could win, on December 11th, I think it was. Their post about Democrats potentially delaying certification to jam through health care really drove the discussion. In the campaign's final days, they served as a great clearinghouse for information about how a volunteer on the ground could get involved in the Brown campaign.

When no pollster would poll the Senate race because it was supposed to be a blowout, local bloggers organized a "citizens' poll" of their own showing the race to be within single digits.

Bloggers are the unsung heroes of the Brown campaign. Without them making the argument that Brown could win, we would not have seen as much focus and attention on the race as we did.

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Arlington, Tex.: Mindy and Patrick -- Congratulations on your great work in Massachusetts. I am a 55-year-old Republican who knows how to use the Internet, but I don't really know how Internet-savvy I can be when it comes to politics. What can I, the individual interested citizen, do (aside from giving money), to help the cause of restoring Republican majorities in Congress in 2010?

Mindy Finn: Thank you. Truly, the unified efforts of more than 150,000 who participated in supporting Brown by making calls from home to Massachusetts voters, spreading the word about his race both online and offline and giving contributions ($5-$10 in many cases) got the job done.

You too can help candidates in 2010 by doing the same. Minimal tech-savvy is required to send an email to news editors or comment on blogs with your opinions, and the tools available to download a call list or walk list are easy to use as sending an email. For example, the Brown campaign had tens of thousands of calls made on his behalf from supporters nationwide.

The definition of campaign volunteer has shifted from someone who shows up in a campaign office to stuff envelopes or make phone calls to anyone who advocates for a candidate in their community. Your community might be your bowling club or just a group of friends and family that you send emails to from time to time. Or, it might be your Facebook friends or Twitter followers. No matter your outlet for socializing, you can advocate to others for candidates you support.

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Freedom, N.H.: Does your Internet/new media experience hold lessons for candidates at the most local of levels? I plan to run for state rep; TV is out, expensive print ads are out, and I'm a cyber- novice.

Patrick Ruffini: That's a great question. 99% of races won't have the same attention level as the Brown race, but that doesn't mean there aren't things you can do as a local candidate to maximize new media to your benefit.

Start by working with your real life friends and supporters to get them online and following you in venues like Twitter and Facebook. Collect e-mail addresses as you're walking door to door, or at events. Get these people to ask their friends.

New media actually enables to the kind of grassroots, person-to-person campaigning that used to be dominant before television. Beyond just the money they raised, the Brown campaign had a program to call tens of thousands of Massachusetts voters from anywhere in the country. Replicate this on a smaller scale by using Twitter and Facebook to connect to people in your community, and asking them to come out to volunteer or to meet you at an event.

The right strategy is high tech AND high touch. Technology can enable you to reach people you wouldn't have reached before, and reach more of them, but the ultimate goal is to get them involved offline too.

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South Bend, Ind.: How can people in other industries learn more about the digital tools that have helped the president, Bob McDonnell, Scott Brown and others win their elections?

What applications do these tools have for nonprofit organizations, etc.?

Mindy Finn: There are some really good conferences every year that feature the latest and greatest in campaign tools and tactics. The Politics Online Conference by George Washington University in DC and the Personal Democracy Forum in NY are a couple we've frequented. For the right, there's Right Online which shifts locations every year and will be in Las Vegas this year. Such events are no longer limited to the big cities either. I just learned of a creative-tech conference in Sioux Falls, SD called OTA Sessions (@otasessions). Aside from conferences, personaldemocracy.com and techpresident.com track the usage of new media/tech in politics, as does epolitics.com and others.

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Baltimore, Md.: Yesterday I got an ominous envelope in the mail with the return address: "Office of Control and Audit" 310 First St., SE Washington, DC. etc.

We've been getting routine tax forms in the mail lately, so I gulped and opened it.

It turned out to be a routine 2010 re-up solicitation for the RNC. Were they trying to tie into tax increase anxiety? No, just a renewal solicitation.

Pathetic. They should abolish the RNC and just put you guys in charge.

Mindy Finn: Flattering, thank you, but we enjoy what we do.

The good news for you is that it was not a tax bill, and you have the freedom to choose whether to pay it.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Patrick, are we seeing realignment appear before our eyes? How huge a role has Twitter played in all of this?

Patrick Ruffini: People have written that the notion of a "permanent majority" goes out the window in an Internet era. That goes both for the permanent Republican majority Bush was supposed to have augured in, as well as the Democratic realignment that started in 2008 with Obama. I think it was James Carville who wrote a book called "40 more years" arguing that Democrats would dominate for that long because of demographic shifts.

Actually, it's been more like 40 weeks.

With the Internet, we can process information faster and register our dissatisfaction with Washington just as fast. The notion that one party is going to get away with unchecked, total control over Washington for years on end is becoming a relic. The vote in Massachusetts was not a partisan vote for Republicans as much as a referendum on the notion that no one party should have the power to pass a massive, game-changing health care overhaul unchecked, with no support from the other side. I think this idea had great appeal, even in one of the bluest states in America.

When Democrats ran Congress for 40 years, it was very easy to say that you hated Congress but loved your Congressman. With people paying more and more attention to national politics, and one could make the argument that this is largely a function of cable news and the web, people are voting nationally, not just locally for their Congressman, and this is causing the pendulum to swing faster.

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Washington, D.C.: There have been reports that Republicans have taken over YouTube, in terms of channel content. With Democrats in charge of the House and Senate, it would seem as if they have more opportunities to speak on the floor, generate earned television media coverage and otherwise have more content to share with constituents. What is the average number of videos for Republicans and Democrats on YouTube, and why do you think the Republicans are winning when they are at such a disadvantage for media opportunities? Thank you for this great chat!

Mindy Finn: I don't know the average # of videos for each party on YouTube, but 89% of Republicans have channels, compared to just 74% of Democrats in Congress. Also, eight of the top 10 most-viewed and most-subscribed channels in Congress are from the GOP. These stats are courtesy of a post by Steve Grove from YouTube: http://www.citizentube.com/2010/01/year-one-review-us-government-on.html.

Precisely because the Democrats have more access to the "bully pulpit" of the House and Senate floor and to earned media, the Republicans have learned to become their own publishers. There are no gateways or filters to publishing one's own videos, or Facebook page or tweets. Doing so is empowering to Republican members who have fewer chances to be heard through mainstream channels with Democrats in power in the White House and Congress.

If Republicans gain the majority in one or both houses in 2010, it will be interesting to see if they continue to remain accessible through YouTube and social media.

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washingtonpost.com: CitizenTube

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Washington, D.C.: Patrick -- in your Washington Post article, you say that following the McDonnell and Brown campaigns, the "Republicans have won the Internet."

Out of interest, what tactics did you use to differentiate these campaigns from the Obama campaign? It seems to me that most, if not all, of the tactics deployed were similar... timely fundraising efforts (Obama: Palin's announcement; Scott: money bomb), active presence on social media sites, clear web branding...

What was different?

washingtonpost.com: How Republicans won the Internet (Post, Jan. 24)

Patrick Ruffini: Like a lot of things in life, good online campaigns are 5% about ideas, and 95% about execution.

I could argue that all the tactics that Obama used in 2008 were actually well-worn techniques pioneered by MoveOn.org or the Dean campaign before them. For many online politicos, the Obama campaign was actually kind of boring online. Their blog, though certainly successful, was not the kind of hub of frenetic activity the Dean blog was four years before it. They never really exposed real time fundraising totals like Ron Paul did on the Republican side -- only numbers of donors. But they took what worked and applied it consistently.

Certainly, much of this same spirit of consistent execution applied to the Brown campaign, but two ideas stood out in the final days that I hadn't seen tried before on this scale: 1) a "voter bomb" asking people to pledge their votes and those of their friends, and presumably using this information to enhance the get-out-the-vote effort, and 2) a program for iPhones, Android, and Blackberries that pinpointed undecided voters with GPS locations as you were walking through neighborhoods, enabling you to knock on their door and have conversations with them.

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Montecito, Calif.: How much did Coakley raise onine?

Mindy Finn: I have not seen that number reported. However, about a week before the election, Coakley's campaign sent a blast email touting a groundswell of support behind her, resulting in $100,000 in online contributions in 24 hours. While that is a lot of money, Brown was bringing in over $1,000,000 per 24 hours at that point, dwarfing Coakley's "groundswell of support."

Brown's ability to draw national grassroots support was just one more aspect of his candidacy Coakley's team underestimated.

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Tampa, Fla.: Could you discuss the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and how it interacts with Internet campaigning? Will the Internet diminish the impact of the case?

Patrick Ruffini: Great question.

Most of traditional Washington was very worked up about the Citizens United case, but I personally have a hard time getting excited about it.

Yes, we'll see a lot more money getting poured into ads this fall. But the kinds of activities that the Citizens United case opens the door wide open to -- paid advertising -- is getting less and less relevant. The Brown campaign was a shoestring effort with a $1.2 million budget that ballooned to a $13 million effort in three weeks. The campaign used the Internet to catch up to established sources of money and power. When the political marketplace demonstrates a compelling need to counter a spending advantage, somehow, someway, it finds a way to do it.

Proponents of the health care bill have had a massive spending advantage in issue advertising for a year -- the kind of advantage you might see amplified with more corporate spending on politics. But at the end of the day, what was more influential: that, or the Tea Party/townhall protests, followed by Massachusetts?

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Do you think apps for smart phones (iPhone, Droid, Nexus One) will play a role in campaigns? If so, to what extent? Will campaigns compete for the best app?

Thank you.

Mindy Finn: I do. Since 2005, I've been involved in efforts to master the use of mobile (at the RNC, Romney '08, McDonnell for Gov), specifically SMS/text messaging for political purposes. We've been constantly aware of an expectation that what we do at a desk now will move to our pocket.

While text messaging has efficacy for quick updates and calls-to-action, I predict the value of apps for smart phones will overtake text in the very near future.

The user experience with a smartphone app far exceeds that for text. During the Brown campaign, for example, we saw dozens of contributions coming from iPhones, something that is not possible through text.

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Austin, Tex.: Patrick -- Great to hear your insight at the blogger summit here last weekend. It occurred to me only after the summit that none of the panelists mentioned Facebook as a political tool. Interestingly, GOP primary voters in Texas are much more engaged in Facebook than Twitter (6 to 1). I understand that Twitter can reach a much larger universe, but what future, if any, does Facebook have in politics?

Patrick Ruffini: This is actually a very good point. When donating to Scott Brown, more people told the campaign they came from Facebook than from Twitter (by about 2.5 to 1).

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El Paso, Tex.: I'm curious: certain types of candidates thrive in certain media environments (JFK - TV, etc). What kind of a candidate or set of characteristics, do you think, is best suited to a social media environment? Thanks.

Patrick Ruffini: You can cite any number of demographic characteristics that make a new media candidate shine. Certainly, it's hard to argue that younger candidates (35, 40, or 45) can identify with wired workers who use the Internet everyday, as well as being more personally comfortable with technology themselves.

At the end of the day though, none of that matters if a candidate isn't willing to be open -- both in answering voters' questions or giving people a glimpse at who they really are. The Internet does not take kindly to canned, processed, prepackaged candidates.

A column over the weekend called Brown the first Senator of the reality TV era. His direct style (dubbing it the "people's seat") combined with the joke he cracked on stage about his daughters on election night show why he was so appealing to people.

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Washington, D.C.: I saw the subject of this chat and I almost laughed out loud. Republicans control the Internet? Talk radio yes...Internet no. Moveon.org, Media Matters, Huffington Post, etc. ... they are the predominant partisan outfits on the media. The GOP can't even come close to that. I don't know how you came to this conclusion? Just because of Scott Brown?

Mindy Finn: You hit on an important dichotomy. I would agree with you that in terms of partisan online news sites/organizations, the right continues to lag the left. Just as the left has tried on talk radio (i.e. Air America), the right continues to try and bridge the gap online (i.e. http://dailycaller.com) . My hope is that they are more successful than the left has been on radio. :-)

However, our piece refers to the hand-to-hand combat of electoral politics. After the come from behind victories of then-candidates Jim Webb (VA), Jon Tester (MT) and Claire McCaskill (MO) and others in 2006 and Barack Obama in the primaries in 2008 (followed by a solid win), the assumption was that Democrats far outpaced Republicans with online organizing and fundraising. We see now that no one party has the advantage online in electoral politics. Rather the supposed advantage is very much environment dependent and driven by grassroots energy than technology prowess. The party who opens up their organization, responds to the people, taps into their concerns ... they have the advantage online, and right now, that's Republicans as evidenced by the elections of Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie to governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively, and Scott Brown to the US Senate in Massachusetts. Particularly with Brown, all conventional wisdom said he had no chance, and I do believe that before the Internet, it would have been virtually impossible for him to overcome a 30-point deficit. Yet, the grassroots ire at the status quo coupled with his direct-to-voter approach and common-man appeal, with the Internet's unique ability to bring together hundreds of thousands of activists united behind a common cause in a matter of days achieved the unthinkable.

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Laurel, Md.: The Democrats' early adoption of new media was very grassroots- oriented, which for many years has not been a focus of the GOP. Has the Republican established genuinely adapted to use social media tools or is it being used more by "tea party" activists, i.e. those who see themselves as grassroots?

Patrick Ruffini: Some people who watch this space closely have said that Democrats succeeded online for all those year because they were "bottom up" while Republicans were "top down" -- that this was something inherent to the personalities of the people on either side.

That argument was simply leftist self-congratulation.

We now know that it's the party in power that's "top down" and the party out of power that's "bottom up" -- that cottons to the use of grassroots tools because they have no other sources of leverage in national policy debates.

At the end of last year, Micah Sifry at TechPresident wrote about "The Obama Disconnect" -- how all the energy of the '08 campaign seemed to have been squandered by the top-down Organizing for America. That didn't come as a surprise to me as someone who worked for the GOP when were in power.

The Tea Party movement has used grassroots and online organizing to great benefit, and it's taken less than a year for them to catch up with the online organizing advantage of the Obama campaign.

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Patrick Ruffini: This was a really great discussion! Happy to answer more later questions later on on Twitter: @PatrickRuffini and @MindyFinn.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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