2016 GOP hopefuls looking beyond Obama's digital playbook

Candidates see Silicon Valley as key to success

WASHINGTON D.C. - Back-to-back presidential losses have the GOP rethinking how to run campaigns and the technology field is the first place the party’s looking to for a facelift. After fighting to shake the notion that their party is out of touch, two of the GOP’s promising White House contenders are now battling to prove their technology chops.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has positioned himself toward youth and Silicon Valley types while Texas Senator Ted Cruz plays up his mother’s career  as a computer programmer. To have a chance at the White House in 2016, both hopefuls understand that courting the Internet crowd means more than just having an active Twitter account.

“They need to win the culture,” said Clay Johnson, co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed President Obama's successful 2008 online campaign, and now CEO of The Department of Better Technology. 

“You win that by being savvy on the Internet, by being able to raise money on the Internet, by viral videos being invested and by being cool.”

 “I think the strategy in their head is that if we win the Internet early on, ‘I can be the Obama of this primary election and I can be the unstoppable candidate,’” Johnson added.

Winning big online can also mean winning big with campaign donations, according to Vincent Harris, chief digital strategist for Rand Paul’s 2016 team and a former digital operative for Ted Cruz.

“Republicans who are used to raising money on Wall Street and wherever else, they are going to be finding that using the Internet and banding together repeat $10 donations and selling products like t-shirts is going to be another very effective way to not only raise money, but to keep people engaged,” Harris said.

After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the GOP released an autopsy report of what went wrong in the campaign. Topping the list was the need to better use technology.

“Republicans must catch up on how we utilize technology in our campaigns. The Obama team is several years ahead of everyone else in its technological advantage,” read the report.

It’s clear that Cruz and Paul both got the message, as they have wasted little time in distancing themselves from their party’s past presidential campaign follies and establishing a long-term digital strategy.

“I think that technology has finally gotten to the place in Republican politics that people are shamed if they aren’t running a good digital operation,” said Harris. “And I’m glad we have finally gotten to that place because it’s taken a decade.”

By studying President Obama’s successful digital campaign, Republican hopefuls have learned that a winning campaign can be financed through grass roots advocacy and establishing a database of donor information, potential voters and volunteers willing to provide on-the ground support.

So far, Cruz has been the first to clearly employ those techniques. During his formal campaign announcement at Liberty University, Cruz asked the audience to text the word “constitution” to his campaign.

“That shows that he’s not only technologically savvy, but it allows him to almost immediately collect a significant database of possible contributors and supporters,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst at the University of Southern California. “That’s the kind of thing that new media is allowing candidates to do.”

But Republicans need to do more, according to Harris. The new digital-driven world now allows campaigns to target users on a range of platforms and devices and candidates need to be on all of them.

“Campaigns are going to have to create content that is specific for mobile, content that is specific for Facebook, content that is specific for Twitter, for TrueView advertisements on Google,” he said. “Previously you would just take your 30 second television ad and you put it everywhere and you put the TV on the Internet, but that’s not going to happen in 2016.”

Appearing on the cusp of the latest tech trend is a strategy widely deployed among the GOP hopefuls– and Paul is arguably at the forefront of it. So far this year he’s attended South by Southwest and touted his mobile skills by setting up both Meerkat and Snapchat accounts.

In addition to the use of new digital platforms, many of the prospective candidates are directly appealing to the tech communities in Austin and San Francisco.

Rand Paul has made no secret of his interest in setting up shop on the West Coast to bring more people to his team while both hopefuls recently wooed the Silicon Valley community at a libertarian tech conference in February.

Appealing to the technology sector for campaign donations is a relatively new phenomenon, says Johnson of the Department of Better Technology. By appearing digital savvy, candidates can get in on the ground floor with a new and growing donor base.

“Tech’s high donor-set has really come into existence. These are people who are now throwing dinner parties for the President, raising money for the President, people who are running for office too, like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina,” said Johnson,. “I don’t think that in 2004 and 2006 people were really courting the technology crowd like they are today. But now we have a President trying to lure technology into working inside the White House and we also have candidates trying to lure the technology crowd into donating.”

To win the GOP primary, and beat prospective Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton, chief digital strategist for Rand Paul’s 2016 team Vincent Harris says the successful Republican candidate has to think of every aspect of his campaign from the digital perspective.

“A successful campaign that uses digital uses digital first in everything that they do,” he said. “Communications, content, rapid response, fundraising, it’s all digital now. It’s all centralized on a digital database. It is all about moving information in and out of that database across varying voter contact mediums.”

It’s a strategy he says, that will be important to candidates on both sides of the aisle hoping to join the 2016 rat race.

[Also by Miranda Green: The anatomy of a presidential announcement]

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