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How (Governor-Elect) Bob McDonnell Went Mobile

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, November 4 2009

Virginia's new governor-elect, Republican Bob McDonnell, ran an online campaign that caught the eyes of many who pay attention to this sort of thing. McDonnell went what you might call the snout-to-tail route, building up a gorgeously branded online presence which, as Colin Delany highlights here, consisted of a website full of tools and resources, a custom Ning network transformed into the McDonnell action community, and more. McDonnell also swamped the competition, Democrat Creigh Deeds, when it comes to online spending. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that McDonnell outspent Deeds online at a rate of 5-to-1 through October 21st (via Blue Virginia and Shaun Dakin), in a race that seemed to serve as an experiment in whether the Obama campaign's online innovations could be co-opted by Republicans and applied to a statewide race.

And one area where McDonnell had what seems like a particularly good run is worth taking a closer look at: mobile.

You heard here and there during the race that McDonnell was running a strong and creative mobile campaign. This morning, TechRepublican's Meghann Olshefski heaped praise on how McDonnell was able to use mobile messaging to really pester supporters to turn out and vote yesterday. So we caught up with Chris Taylor of Tusk Mobile, which directed McDonnell's online efforts. He highlighted for us some of what made McDonnell's mobile push tick, and gave insight into just how mobile can provide a boost to a campaign:

  • The Republican Governors Association had been fascinated by the potential of an Obama-style mobile push in a gubernatorial race, and saw the McDonnell campaign as a chance to see how text messaging might work in a statewide context. They connected Taylor's outfit with McDonnell.
  • McDonnell bought into the idea early on, putting some of that campaign expenditure towards buying a dedicated short code rather than going the "dirt cheap route," says Taylor, of sharing a code. That dedicated code of GOBOB or 46262 allowed the campaign to set up custom keywords -- like "women," "life," "taxes," or "UVA" -- that helped segment the list they were building into different interest and geographic areas. Taylor estimates that the campaign eventually used somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 keywords.
  • McDonnell, says Taylor, also bought into the idea of mobile by becoming well practiced at repeating "Text VA to GOBOB" at every campaign stop. The McDonnell campaign also helped out by printing the short code on all his materials.
  • The McDonnell campaign, after a bit of initial hesitance, integrated mobile in to the field campaign by empowering each of the 25 or so field reps scattered around the state to build their own individual mobile lists. Field reps' initials became keywords, and folks they met while organizer were invited to join those personal lists. "Every single field rep had their own list," says Taylor. Some organizers lists amounted to 100 to 125 people, consisting of each organizer's "go to guys." A field rep who needed immediate help making phone calls could text that core group and offer up a hot pizza dinner for a few hours of phone banking.
  • Everyone who signed up for the McDonnell text program was asked for their zip code, which was mapped to congressional district and used to geo-target. When the candidate barnstormed one day from Alexandria to Virginia Beach, for example, anyone within 20 miles of a campaign stop was texted out event details as well as a contact number for the organizer who was on the ground and putting the event together.
  • The campaign set up a web-based mobile inbox that collected all of the overflow SMS messages that weren't pegged to a particular short code, and that became a way for supporters to connect to the campaign in an unstructured way. Taylor gives the example of a physician in northern Virginia who used his cell phone to let the campaign know of his plans to start a Doctors for McDonnell chapter. When it got the text, the campaign hooked him up with a local organizer to help get the effort off the ground. In another example, someone texted in that some of the McDonnell yard signs that had been running along a highway had gone missing. No worries, texted the supporter. "I'm going to keep watch tonight."
  • To help build the list, the campaign tried out all sorts of tactics: giving away Redskins tickets via SMS, hosting a quiz on famous Virginia Republicans, holding a context to help name the RV that McDonnell was using to crisscross the state.
  • On election day, having a list segmented by location helped them to pinpoint GOTV efforts. The full SMS list got a generic "get out the vote" message on election day, but more pinpointed messages went out, like "Roanoke turnout isn't where it needs to be." Texts were also used to keep track of what was happening on the ground in polling places, like immediate reports of where a fire alarm had been pulled or where someone was suspected of electioneering too close to a voting location.

Taylor is mum on just how big Bob McDonnell's mobile list grew to be in the end, but he called the number "substantial." (Photo credit: