In age of Facebook, Twitter and apps, some candidates adapt better than others

The Washington Post
By Shailagh Murray and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has lots of “friends” – 58,610 of them, to be exact.

That’s the number of people who support the former Maryland governor on Facebook, and as he campaigns across the state trying to get his old job back, he mentions his online pals whenever he can. Ehrlich’s Democratic opponent, Gov. Martin O’Malley, can claim a mere 24,516 Facebook supporters. “That proves I’m friendlier,” Ehrlich told the crowd at a corn roast Saturday in Baltimore County, and “more popular.”

No doubt, if the election were held on Facebook, Ehrlich would be the runaway winner. But in Maryland, where the election actually will be held, a Washington Post poll has him trailing O’Malley by 11 points.

Ehrlich is one of many politicians this year who have discovered the limits of online friendship.

President Obama’s 2008 campaign showed how the Internet could be used to organize grass-roots supporters into a nationwide political force. Now House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates across the country are finding it isn’t so easy to duplicate Obama’s results.

To show that they “get” the Web, too, politicians are venturing online to raise money, organize volunteers and communicate directly with supporters. They rack up Facebook friends, tweet their every thought and action (or assign some poor young staffer to do it for them), shell out for Obama-style iPhone applications and wait for the Web to work its magic.

A lot of them have been disappointed to find that all that motion doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.

“So you have 50,000 Facebook fans – what the heck are you going to do with them?” said Vincent Harris, a GOP new-media consultant for numerous 2010 candidates. “Campaigns this cycle are in this frenzy of numbers, numbers, numbers. But how do you effectively reach these people and activate them?”

When Harris signed on as the new-media adviser to Republican Robert F. McDonnell’s campaign for Virginia governor last year, the candidate asked for all the Obama bells and whistles. Harris adopted a sophisticated text-messaging system that allowed the campaign to send quick news flashes to supporters.

McDonnell spent $150,000 to buy the very latest in texting technology. The campaign put its SMS “short code” on T-shirts, online ads and rally placards.

But by Election Day, the campaign had collected only about 9,000 mobile numbers, compared with more than 250,000 plain old e-mail addresses. This year, Harris has discouraged his clients from investing in texting. “I don’t think mobile is there yet,” Harris said.

Apps for the iPhone are another popular campaign toy. But they can run in the thousands of dollars to create and aside from a certain hipster quality don’t tend to reach many voters. And neither text messaging nor apps can be used for political fundraising, making them even less effective as campaign tools.

Some candidates are clearly more agile than others in adopting new ways of doing things. McDonnell struggled to make use of the cell numbers he collected, but GOP candidate Scott Brown used text messages to deploy a guerrilla army in his winning campaign to succeed the late Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Whenever Brown’s Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, appeared on a talk-radio show, the Brown campaign would text the cellphones of some 7,000 supporters, asking them to light up the phone lines with critical questions.

Rob Willington, Brown’s new-media strategist, was inspired by the text message Obama sent to supporters announcing Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate. But Willington took the idea a step further, using the text message as a real-time call to action.

“What I love is, creativity can make up for the lack of bucks,” Willington said. “Because of the technology, if you have an interesting candidate with an interesting message, that can go viral and be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. That was never possible. Real, raw talent has the ability to break through all the noise out there.”

Similarly, the Democratic National Committee has created a new iPhone mapping app for campaign workers to use while canvassing neighborhoods on behalf of candidates. The app improves their chances of finding a receptive audience by pointing them to the homes of people who voted for Obama. It is widely viewed as one of the most innovative tools of the 2010 campaign.

One of the most widely copied campaign innovations from 2008 isn’t very techie at all: It’s the home phone bank, which saves campaigns money on office rent and telephone bills by having volunteers make recruiting calls from their own houses. Tea party groups have been especially effective at using the technique, recruiting activists to make campaign calls on behalf of tea party candidates in districts thousands of miles away from where they live.

The one online tool that seems to have lost a lot of its appeal to voters is the candidate’s Web site. Every office seeker has one, but they tend toward the dull and dutiful and inspire few repeat visitors.

“Nobody is going to a politician’s Web site every day,” said Wesley Donehue, a GOP consultant in South Carolina whose clients include Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and whose sharply worded Twitter posts have helped him achieve celebrity among tea party activists. Some politicians might still be struggling to figure out how to use the new tools, Donehue said, but “if the politician is where the people are, social networks are going to become the new hub of campaign activity.”

David All, a Capitol Hill veteran and GOP new-media strategist, agrees.

“The whole model is about to shift on its head,” said All, who organized his industry’s first bipartisan conference last week in Washington. “The only thing that is going to slow that down is the old guard, trying to hold on to the old-school ways.”