- - Friday, May 11, 2012

The candidates who grasp how technology is changing the political landscape and engage one-on-one with their voters in the coming months will have a big advantage this fall. Candidates like Republican Rob McKenna, running for governor of Washington state, will win even when the electoral odds should be stacked against them in blue states. More than 50 percent of the U.S. population and 65 percent of registered voters have a smartphone, and the majority of them are using Facebook and other social networking venues. On mobile devices, more than 30 percent of the usage is dedicated to social media. These tools are empowering grass-roots voters to share ideas, validate or repudiate political leaders and make instant multimedia pressure a factor in how a modern democracy works.

This use of technology coincides with a fundamental shift in modern communication and the power of the people. As voter discontent grows, information increasingly is shared by social and other forms of digital media among the grass-roots base. At the start of 2012, 53 percent of the U.S. population spent an average of 13 minutes a day on Facebook.

While campaigns spend billions this year on traditional methods of outreach such as TV, their messages will be readily counterbalanced by much more inexpensive communication on various social networks by peer-to-peer chatter and fact-sharing and -checking. There’s a reason for this: According to Erik Qualman, noted social networking author and expert, 90 percent of users surveyed trust peer reviews, while just 17 percent trust advertisers. The key message of this survey is that the political establishment needs to grasp that future elections will be won or lost based on the electorate substantiating or repudiating a candidate’s message among their social networking relationships rather than just “buying” into the purchased message of the TV or radio ad. Viewed another way, imagine your social networking referrals are like mail in your mailbox: You open the card from a friend and toss the junk mail in the garbage.

It’s easy in hindsight to view the failure of a traditional campaign strategy, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign flub last fall is a prime example of when a digital media plan might have changed his future. In November, he was flummoxed for 45 seconds onstage over a question related to which federal agencies he would eliminate. Though it was a mental lapse in the midst of intense pressure, the media ran the story and within one news cycle destroyed Mr. Perry’s credibility. If his campaign had a well-developed digital social media strategy, it could have “pushed” out a message to the campaign’s mobile app, text list, Facebook page and Twitter feed with talking points about what had happened and how to respond. Within minutes, his campaign would have been ahead of the news cycle, and from a peer-to-peer standpoint, likely been able to withstand the media’s onslaught of negative attention. Mr. Perry was like most candidates in trying to understand how to maximize his social-media relationships. He had many supporters digitally; he just didn’t have a strategy or know how to reach them. On the other hand, those candidates that “get it” are benefiting, and the results are immediately measurable.

Two-term Attorney General Rob McKenna is running for governor in Washington, a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the chief executive’s seat in more than 30 years. The Evergreen State is an ideal proving ground for an effective digital campaign strategy, as the state’s electorate is one of the most educated and most broadband-oriented in the nation. Starting with the campaign’s kickoff, Mr. McKenna deployed an engaging digital-media campaign that has disseminated his plans for Washington by actively engaging his base of support and its friends through social media. The result was surprising momentum early in the cycle, when campaigns generally founder in their attempts to gain public attention, as the media only covers candidate fundraising and early polling.

Why do we know his use of digital media is effective? For a solid blue state where President Obama still polls acceptably, Mr. McKenna built a lead in several polls that has increased recently to outside the margin of error. Earlier this year, the campaign received national attention when Campaigns and Elections magazine judged it to be the third-best campaign blog in the nation.

Success in building online fire doesn’t necessarily mean a campaign understands how to use the technology. As former Sen. Rick Santorum developed an enthusiastic following at the start of his primary insurgency, he doubled his number of Facebook fans. While by a percentage basis he greatly increased his digital fans, they weren’t virally spreading his message enough to put him over the top. From a digital-messaging standpoint, it meant he piqued interest but wasn’t catching viral fire. In the new-media world, these were early warning signals about the doomed future of his candidacy, which ultimately came to a close in mid-April.

Political communication is no longer about forcing a message onto a voter but sharing that message with the grass roots to get them to replicate it to their peers for minimal or no cost via their social networks. Republican leadership and candidates need to learn the difference if the GOP is to lead America in 2013.

Anthony Welcher, co-founder of 21Strat.com, is a member of the Washington State Republican Party Executive Board and a candidate for the Republican National Committee.

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