Harris Media: “Rand Paul’s Internet Army”
Welcome to the front lines of the battle for your Facebook news feed.
Vincent Harris wants details, and he’s not getting them. The 26-year-old political consultant is quizzing two Facebook guys who’ve showed up at the Austin headquarters of his media firm, and all he’s getting back is a pat lecture about the value of social networking for online campaigns.
Harris and the dozen staffers gathered in his company’s conference room don’t exactly need to be convinced: This is what they do. And by the time the 2016 presidential campaign is over, these twentysomethings expect to be paid millions of dollars for doing it well. They already spend all day everyday on the digital front lines, producing content—videos, graphics, games—tailored specifically for Facebook, tallying likes and clicks, dissecting what caught fire and what fell flat. They already get why Facebook matters. What they want to know is how to crack the code.
“Is 23 seconds the ideal video length?” Harris asks, interrupting the well-rehearsed presentation. The most successful Facebook videos often clock in at 15 to 30 seconds, and Harris read a study suggesting 23 seconds might be the sweet spot. The answer from the Facebook rep veers toward the philosophical, and Harris tunes out after a few seconds, tapping at his iPhone instead. He gets a message.
“The Meerkat guy is here,” Harris announces abruptly, rising from his seat. The Facebook pair exchange a look.
The Meerkat Guy, whose name is Ryan Cooley, has popped in to make the case that the new, Twitter-based video-streaming application could be useful to digital politics shops like Harris Media, which has amassed a marquee roster of conservative clients, from Sarah Palin to Rand Paul, and established itself as the buzziest GOP firm of the cycle. Cooley is wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with a cartoon of the friendly-looking African mongoose. Harris leads him into his office, closes the door, and minutes later, the two are furiously meerkatting—a verb that did not exist a few weeks prior and, given Twitter’s recent purchase of Meerkat competitor Periscope, one that may rapidly fade from the vernacular.
For the moment, at least, the Meerkat Guy is the purveyor of cutting-edge coolness, and Harris doesn’t hide his excitement over the clever app. He tells the Meerkat Guy that he wants his client Rand Paul to be the first presidential contender to use it; Harris is so bullish on the Kentucky senator that, last November, he ditched Senator Ted Cruz, the client who put him on the map, to work for the rival campaign—and he knows exactly how to help win over Paul, who also attended Baylor University, to an untested new tool: “Can you bring him a shirt? That would help,” Harris says. “Rand loves shirts.”
Harris then begins texting an adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister of Israel had hired Harris and his team to help with his down-to-the-wire reelection bid; one of Harris’ colleagues is living temporarily in Israel to work on the campaign and Harris will arrive in the country for the critical hours right before votes are cast. The Israeli election has been a good opportunity to test out online experiments that Harris hopes to use to make Paul stand out in the crowded GOP field here in the United States. It’s also Harris’ first time on the international stage—where he will go head-to-head with Jeremy Bird, the celebrated online organizing architect of both Barack Obama victories, who is working to oust Netanyahu’s government. “Meerkat would be great to use for the PM,” Harris texts Tel Aviv.
After the Meerkat Guy departs, Harris is still on a high. “This is what I live for,” he says, grinning. “It’s another step in the history of technology.”
When the history of the 2016 presidential campaign is written, Harris hopes he’ll play a starring role, that online micro-victories like getting Rand Paul to meerkat (Netanyahu, alas, never did) will encourage online fundraising, boost get-out-the-vote efforts and return the GOP to the White House. He hopes along the way to catch up after a decade of Republican digital neglect that has seen the party repeatedly outclassed and out-organized online, delivering fame, money and power to rival Democratic Internet strategists and Obama to the White House twice.
It wasn’t always that way: Karl Rove’s micro-targeting operation helped push George W. Bush across the finish line in Ohio in 2004, giving Democrats fits. But the GOP has been struggling ever since to catch up. This is not merely about consultant bragging rights but also about communicating with voters at a time when they’re rapidly abandoning the traditional media channels by which candidates have reached them. They may not be meerkatting in droves, but social media and email are increasingly among the best ways to reach voters, competing against 30-second television ads, direct mail fliers, campaign phone banks and evening newscasts. To reach an electorate glued to their iPhones, the 2016 presidential candidates need people like Harris, and lots of them.
It won’t be easy. The GOP simply doesn’t have the broad base of tech talent that the Democrats have built up, and that gap persists as the smaller teams Republicans have hired means fewer experienced staffers for future campaigns. The party has a much smaller pool of both midlevel campaign staff and senior leaders who are well-versed in the possibilities of technology—so few, in fact, that most tech-savvy Republicans, like Harris, eschew working for campaigns in-house and instead run their own consulting firms to allow them to contribute to multiple campaigns at once. The demand is too high and the money on the open market is too enticing; the firm run by Zac Moffatt, the digital director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, was paid nearly $10 million by the Republican congressional and Senate campaign committees in the 2014 midterm elections and was one of the top 30 vendors in the entire cycle across both parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. “If you’re good, you don’t have to be good for very long to leave the party infrastructure and go out on [your] own,” says one veteran GOP political operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the party’s shortcomings. “It makes complete objective sense for them, but long term, it has handicapped the party’s growth.”
In a seller’s market like this, not everything is worth the price: Two major candidates—Jeb Bush and Scott Walker—have already had to fire top tech strategists when online furors arose about the strategists’ old tweets. And Ted Cruz’s otherwise celebrated launch at Liberty University was marred by stories about how he had failed to secure obvious website URLs for his campaign like tedcruz.com, leading to days of negotiations with cyber squatters. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, drawing from the large pool of Obama digital veterans, is bragging about hiring as many as 1,000 to its tech team nationwide, which would make it three times larger than Obama’s in 2012. The last time she ran for president, in 2008, she had roughly 30.
To beat her—or whomever the Democratic Party picks as its nominee—the GOP is going to need an adventurous candidate who’s willing to wade into uncharted online waters, be it Meerkat or whatever next year’s hot new thing turns out to be, and Harris believes he’s found the ideal candidate in Rand Paul. The Web, which celebrates its culture of disruption, has always benefited insurgent candidates over establishment ones—think not just Obama over Clinton, but unknowns like Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary and Ned Lamont in the 2006 Connecticut Senate race. So why not Rand Paul, the quirky ophthalmologist-turned-senator with the libertarian dad and the pitch to millennials that he’s on a mission to expand the party? “People are going to be watching and trying to call our bluff,” Harris says. “Are you really as digital and tech-friendly as you’re saying?”
The decor of the Capital Factory in downtown Austin is spare techie chic: concrete floors, exposed ventilation, whiteboards and widescreens. Its occupants include startups like Swimtopia, which provides online tools for swim-team coaches, and Albino Dragon, a game company that offers, among other products, Breaking Bad-themed playing cards. Now add to that eclectic roster a satellite office for the presidential campaign of a first-term senator from Kentucky—a tiny red dot in a blue city in a very red state.
Rand Paul himself appeared at the Capital Factory on a Monday morning following a weekend at March’s South-by-Southwest festival, where he hobnobbed with lanyard-draped tech entrepreneurs and hung out at a Mark Ronson show. The night before, he had fielded questions on Twitter while seated in front of a Twitter-branded backdrop as a small audience looked on, taking shots along the way at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Security Agency and Hillary Clinton. “I’m a constitutional conservative,” he tweeted. “Libertarianish. Have a foot in both camps.”
In the flesh, Paul can seem stiff and serious, but online, he stays loose and cracks wise. He tweeted illustrations of a royal crown and scepter to Barack Obama, which he dubbed the “‘president who thinks he’s a king’ starter pack.” It was an idea cooked up by Harris’ team and favorited or retweeted nearly 10,000 times. (The senator is “highly involved” in the campaign’s social media, Harris says, and a half-dozen staffers have access to his feed and can post directly.) He’s the most prolific tweeter among the 2016 Republican hopefuls, and his roughly 600,000 followers to date is second in followers to Marco Rubio’s 720,000 and counting—although the entire GOP field combined is dwarfed on Twitter by Hillary Clinton’s more than 3 million followers.
Hours later, Harris was on a plane to Tel Aviv, even as his colleagues compiled a triumphant 45-second montage of Paul looking professorial in a mock white turtleneck and blazer, speaking into a microphone, gesticulating, having his photo taken and slipping on a pair of shades. A Bloomberg headline deemed Paul’s Austin trip “disruptive,” as if he were the Uber of presidential candidates. Oh, and he meerkatted too, becoming the first presidential contender to do so. Jeb Bush followed a few days afterward, late to the party.
How did Vincent Harris pull it off? There are certainly bigger digital operations even on the Republican side—Moffatt’s firm, Targeted Victory, has around 100 employees; Harris Media has 23 at the moment—but no one has managed to attract bigger names. Harris got his start writing at his own site, tooconservative.com, when he was in high school in Northern Virginia, where he grew up, then quickly graduated to helping blog and devise new-media strategy for Mike Huckabee during the former Arkansas governor’s 2008 presidential run. Harris made his mark in 2011, working on digital strategy for an underdog U.S. Senate candidate from Texas named Ted Cruz. In the 2012 campaign, he worked at various times for the presidential efforts of both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Today, with Senator Paul and (successfully reelected) Prime Minister Netanyahu, his eponymous firm’s list of clients includes Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Sarah Palin, who no longer requires a title. (“The best speech I’ve ever heard in my life was her convention speech,” Harris says. “I get goosebumps. It’s like she’s my mom.”) Harris Media’s client roster has included dozens of other Republican notables: senators like Jim Inhofe, Rob Portman, Tim Scott and Bill Cassidy, as well as former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Allen West, various conservative super PACs and more than a score of GOP congressmen like Justin Amash, Tim Huelskamp, Mac Thornberry and Blake Farenthold.