The duo inside the Facebook war room
By Steve Friess
When President Barack Obama’s campaign wants to put out a new message on Facebook, it often calls up a Democratic strategist who sits two feet away from a Republican who does the same for Mitt Romney.
It’s not the world’s most impressive war room — just two people in Facebook’s F Street office with graffiti and exposed wires. But it is the place where any candidate, many far less savvy than the presidential campaigns, are trying to harness the power of this whole “social networking” thing they hear so much about.
It’s a smart business move for Facebook: cash in on a divided Washington by playing to the insecurities of both sides. Campaigns don’t want their secret digital strategy revealed to the other side, so Facebook will ensure that a bona fide Democrat or Republican will handle their most sensitive requests.
“There’s a natural trust issue: Republicans don’t trust Democrats. I don’t trust Democrats with how I spend my ad dollars,” said Vincent Harris, owner of Harris Media LLC, who ran the digital campaigns for the GOP presidential bids of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.
The two strategists are Democrat Adam Conner, 27, and Republican Katie Harbath, 31. Conner’s desk has a Daily Kos water bottle and Harbath’s has her framed autographed photo of the Young Guns — Reps. Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy.
Conner was on the Kerry-Edwards campaign in ’04, and Harbath was the chief digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Now they’re unlikely teammates, answering a constant stream of calls and emails from everyone from presidential campaign consultants to small town mayors. If the question is technical, either one can walk them through Facebook’s tools — from timelines to targeted ads. But if it’s politically sensitive, the candidate or campaign can work with a fellow partisan to help tailor messages to constituents and voters.
As Facebook’s power and reach grows, campaigns are looking to harness expert strategy on how to use that treasure trove of data volunteered by users, from the obvious (age, gender, ZIP code and political affiliation) to the more nebulous (TV show preferences, hobbies, organizational affiliations).
Such information can help target partisan messages to voters. Candidates can be shown, for instance, how to promote themselves on the walls of people who have “liked” their opponents, or a message can be tailored to, say, unaffiliated voters who express an interest in women’s health topics.
It works because, importantly, Conner and Harbath don’t share their campaign confidences outside the office. In fact, if one is not available, campaigns can consult with the other, and both say they try to help in a nonpartisan manner.
Obama 2008 digital campaign chief Scott Goodstein said there’s always risk in this sort of dealing but “at least you have a little bit better chance that Adam’s not going to call up a Republican and say, ‘The Democrat just bought X amount of ads, you better double up.’ The fact that Katie and Adam sit six feet from one another? What am I gonna do? If I want to play around on their network, I have to trust.”
Harris has the same approach, but from the other side of the spectrum. “Does Adam know what I’m buying? Sure. I might go to him to say I’m spending $100,000 and this is who I want to reach, but I’m not going to bare my soul to someone of the opposite party,” he said.
It’s very different with Harbath. “Katie and I had a conversation before the Iowa caucuses when Perry was trying to win over evangelicals, and she suggested one way to reach those voters was to advertise on the Facebook wall of alumni from Christian universities in Iowa,” Harris said.
Under most circumstances, Conner and Harbath would not be working together. But they’re real-life “friends.”
The duo, who sat for a rare joint interview with POLITICO last week, comprise Facebook’s entire staff designated to help candidates and officeholders use the tools the site has to offer. In fact, until last year that “staff” was simply Conner — until he suggested the Harbath hire knowing GOP demand was about to skyrocket.
“We knew the 2012 cycle was coming down the pipeline and there were going to be a lot of Republican presidential candidates that we need someone to work with,” said Conner, who served as an aide with the House Committee on Rules before joining Facebook in 2007.
Still, the arrangement is unusual. Many companies have in-house lobbyists of various political ilk to cover their bases on the Hill. But Conner and Harbath are both veteran political operatives for their sides who are privy to strategy — the timing, size and messaging in each online ad buy — that opponents would love to access.
In fact, in many cases they’re the ones providing ideas for how to tactically place campaign messages or donation pleas for maximum effect.
As recently as last week, for instance, staffers for Campaign Solutions, a top Republican digital campaign firm, were in constant contact with Harbath to prepare how candidates would react in Facebook advertising depending on how the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act, the firm’s CEO Becki Donatelli said.
“My team talks to her almost every day,” said Donatelli, whose company is managing Web strategies for hundreds of clients this year and led former GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann’s online effort. “I trust that what we talk about is not going to the other side of the aisle to be used by the left.”
Conner and Harbath have an easy, perhaps unlikely, rapport with one another for people who have long toiled on opposite sides of issues. He hails from Los Alamos, N.M., and half-joked that he was seduced into Democratic politics by the idealism of “The West Wing.” She’s the daughter of a Green Bay, Wis., paper mill executive who describes herself as a “middle-of-the-road Republican” ever since she watched President George W. Bush’s rousing address to Congress following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Among her bona fides: She first developed gop.com for the Republican National Committee in 2004.
“Katie has her opinions as I do, and she’s passionate about them, as I am, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to change her mind,” Conner said.
Harbath agreed: “Here in the office, we’re so busy helping with Facebook and helping getting people on board, that it’s a common goal. It’s not something where there’s people fighting at all, back and forth, or getting into any sort of heated debates.”
In fact, they have a common mission to modernize campaigning for both parties. Despite the inflamed rhetoric — especially via the Internet — that is a byproduct of today’s polarized politics, partisans among digital consultants have found it far easier to get along than other segments of the body politic.
“You don’t understand what it’s like until you’ve had to go through the campaign manager who doesn’t get it or the chief of staff who doesn’t quite understand technology or the levels of approval you have to go through to get an email sent out,” Conner said.
The two strike very different tones in their own social media behavior. Conner’s Facebook statuses and Twitter updates routinely affirm his Democratic leanings, most recently exhorting followers to give to the Obama campaign and celebrating the SCOTUS health care ruling. Harbath seems more circumspect, largely eschewing overtly political remarks for patter about her travels and devotion to the Green Bay Packers. The closest she came in recent weeks to anything that could be perceived as campaigning was encouraging her Facebook friends to help Romney cross the 2 million fans mark.
Nonetheless, Harbath’s presence has significantly changed the perception of Facebook in Washington. When Conner founded the D.C. office out of his apartment in 2007, he was the Palo Alto company’s sole lobbyist in addition to trying to educate the town about social media. His activism as well as the decision in 2008 of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to work for the Obama campaign cemented a perception of the company as left-leaning and, perhaps, not a place for the GOP to do business. (Conner is no longer a lobbyist.)
“It’s great that they have divided it up along partisan lines because it creates a relationship of trust so that I can call Adam for advice and not be concerned that it’s going to make it across the aisle to the other side,” said Stephanie Grasmick, whose firm Rising Tide is working this year with several Democratic gubernatorial and senatorial candidates.
The tools to advertise on Facebook are fairly straightforward, but consultants say it takes someone with intimate knowledge of the medium to divine formulae for speaking to specific segments of voters.
Much of Conner and Harbath’s jobs are less glamorous than brainstorming how to speak to independents, though. They jointly helm training sessions for Hill staffers to explain how they might use new Facebook tools in governing and trot the nation to evangelize for the site at an endless number of political gatherings. Conner just returned from Netroots Nation in Providence, R.I., for example, while Harbath was in Las Vegas for RightOnline.
Considering how small a piece of Facebook’s business politics is, it’s remarkable that Conner and Harbath make themselves available to candidates of pretty much any level. Take, for instance, the case of Mayor Tom Pennington of tiny Hartsville, S.C., last week.
Pennington had hit the maximum 5,000 Facebook friends and had to transition from a personal page to a fan page, where he could have an unlimited number of users. Yet in the process, he deleted his own access as administrator and couldn’t read, much less respond to, resident emails sent through the site.
Pennington became frantic. He called Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters, emailed the help desk and took to Twitter to beg tech-savvy Newark Mayor Cory Booker and, repeatedly, even Mark Zuckerberg himself to intervene. Eventually, he called the office of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) whose staff suggested he contact Harbath.
His access was restored within the hour.
“I’m pretty sure having met her it’s going to change my life politically for the better,” Pennington predicted.