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Massachusetts Special: The State of the Brown vs. Coakley (Online) Race

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 19 2010

As we reach the very end of the Massachusetts special election, we're seeing a ramping up of folks working to extract what the race means for the state of online politics. The New York Times' Ross Douthat, for example, takes Republican Scott Brown's strong Internet showing -- three times the number of Twitter followers as his opponent, Democrat Martha Coakley, for example, or the $1.3 Brown's campaign says it raised in a one-day online fundraising blitz -- as a sign that Republicans and conservatives have erased whatever dominance Democrats and progressives once had online. Maybe the Internet doesn't favor liberals, doesn't favor progressivism, the thinking goes -- assumptions that you fairly regularly hear at conferences where people gather to discuss online politics.

(Keep reading for a recap of some of the Internet highlights from the Massachusetts special election.)

And yes, the Brown vs. Coakley race, as well as, for example, the skilled way in which British conservatives are making use of technology, suggests that the idea that the Internet favors the left needs to be thought about far more carefully. But Douthat makes a bit of a leap to say that the lesson from today's election in Massachusetts is that, in fact, "technology changes, but politics remains the same." It's worth waiting until the dust settles in the Bay State before we take any hard and firm conclusions from the experience, but there seems to be a good chance that the Internet actually changed "politics" a great deal here.

(Recap coming soon, promise...)

The very fact that we're talking about the real chance that tomorrow there will be a "Senator Scott Brown," though, says that something has changed here. Coakley expected to waltz to the Senate seat (and, of course, it's silly to overlook the weakness of her candidacy when we draw any lessons from this campaign). The Internet seems to have equipped Brown to catch, collect, and amplify the enthusiasm that grew around his campaign -- both pro-Brown energy, and anti-Coakley, anti-Obama, anti-health care reform (and anti-Republican establishment) sentiment. And then there's the simple logistic factor that, because this was a special election triggered by the death of Ted Kennedy, this was a condensed campaign schedule. That's probably a major deal here because if there is the anything the Internet seems to be good at, it seems to be catalyzing excitement at an amazingly quick pace. The Internet has suggested again and again that it loves an insurgent candidate (Howard Dean, Ron Paul, Barack Obama...) , and Brown's surge seemed in many ways to be a perfect match for the Internet's particular metabolism.

But that's a long lead-in to a quick recap of assorted highlights on the new media front on the MA special election race, which might be particularly helpful if you haven't been keeping close tabs on the online action:

  • As has been widely noted, Brown's candidacy seems to have generated far more online excitement than Coakley's. By simple metrics, indeed that's the case. Brown (@scottbrownMA) had 12,000 Twitter followers this morning, compared to Coakley's just 4,000 (@marthacoakley) -- though both are in the same ballpark in terms of raw number of overall tweets, in the 600 to 700 range. By follower count, Brown's ahead on Facebook as well. As of yesterday, Coakley's main Facebook candidate page was at 17,700, while Brown had 97,000 fans. (Then there's the Red Sox Nation Against Martha Coakley page with its 600 followers, a response to Coakley's somewhat inexplicable statement that Curt Schilling was a, gulp, Yankees fan.)

  • Google Insight suggests that Bay Staters have been searching for more information on Brown in the last week than they have been for Coakley (as seen in the chart above). That might be a result of the fact that Brown was simply the lesser-known candidate than Coakley, the state's attorney general, but it might also indicate that voters are still entertaining the idea of voting for him.

  • Both Coakley and Brown have reached the status of trending topics on Twitter today, Tuesday. That said, Brown's search results are somewhat misleading; the search backing Brown's stream was keyed to pull up anything with "Brown" in it. Thus, tweets related to brown recluse spiders and Lakers guard Shannon Brown are artificially inflating his results. (Track results for Scott Brown here, for Martha Coakley here, and for the #masen hashtag that many people are using here.)

  • A minute-and-half YouTube clip of Scott Brown telling a debate moderator David Gergen plainly, "With all due respect, it's not the Kennedy's seat, it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat," has pulled in more than half a million views on YouTube since it went up online last week.

  • Brown, as noted above, raised $1.3 million in a one-day "money bomb" as part of his Red Invades Blue campaign. For her part, Coakley supporters have raised $1.2 million on her behalf on ActBlue, from more than 14,000 supporters.

  • Both candidates are angling to be uber-responsive to their online audiences -- and seem to be keying their engagement off one another at times. To wit, when CNN's Rick Sanchez tweeted that he was covering the Coakley vs. Brown race, within a half hour the Democrat had responded: "@RickSanchezCNN I'll stand with working families and lead us into a brighter future! Every vote matters: http://tinyurl.com/yjltqc2 #MASen" About nine minutes later, the Republican got in the act. Tweeted back Brown, "@ricksanchezcnn this race is going to be close, supporters can make calls from home to help out, go to BrownForUSSenate.com #masen."

  • Browns campaign in particular seems to have been aggressively framing his campaign as a grassroots, collaborative effort. His Voter Bomb get-out-the-vote project, for example, is explicitly built on the backs of the social networks of his supporters. "Tell Scott Brown how many voters you will personally ensure show up and vote on Tuesday," reads the call to action. "This means you are saying you will be responsible for verifying that your network ACTUALLY VOTED." It's a social media-y sentiment that Brown has been weaving throughout his campaign. "You are having a rally tomorrow and I'm invited," tweeted Brown on Saturday.

  • The engagement of "outside" groups and online activists has gotten some attention in traditional Massachusetts political circles. Boston's Democratic mayor Tom Menino, for example, has complained about the "dot coms" who have stuck their noses in the race. One of those dot coms (well, dot-org, actually) working aggressively in the race is Organizing for America, which has been pushing an online phone banking in the race. Executive Director Jeremy Bird has emailed the OFA list to turn out volunteers and voters, as has President Barack Obama, who tied the fate of the Coakley race directly to his own campaign, "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election." The New York Times reported that OFA volunteers had made 90,000 calls for Coakley on Saturday alone. Brown's campaign has instead conducted its own in-house phone banking program.

  • When it comes to texting, too, the Coakley campaign is relying on groups like Organizing for America to provide its online infrastructure. Brown has his own in-house texting campaign ("TEXT BROWN to 68398 To Join The Mobile Campaign") and his campaign bus has his shortcode emblazoned on his front bumper. But Organizing for America texting on Coakley's behalf, sending out short notes like, "Crucial: Massachusetts-Senate race for Kennedy's seat in jeopardy. Can you call a few voters? Log in to get a list of people to call: http://barackobama.com/n2n."

  • Another area where Coakley has gotten backup from the Democratic establishment is on the tweeting front. Brand-new tweeter White House press secretary Bill Burton took to Twitter to provide some media pushback on Coakley's behalf, writing, " I wholeheartedly disagree: CNN: Obama advisors expect Coakley to lose: http://tinyurl.com/y928ugc" (Might want to master the art of the retweet, Bill, so as not to have people think you're bagging on your own candidate.) And the @barackobama account made its own health-care focused pitch for Coakley, tweeting "To get the job done on health reform, we need to elect @MarthaCoakley to the Senate on Tuesday. Call key MA voters today."

  • Where the Coakley campaign is working closely with the Democratic party establishment, the Brown campaign traces its online roots directly to the Rebuild the Party movement of 2008, which saw (mostly younger) Republican activists challenge the GOP to become more technologically-savvy. The Brown's campaign new media director Robert Willington, for example, also happens to be the executive director of the Rebuild the Party effort. (The Brown campaign seems to be tech all the way down; tweeted Willington: "Where would our #masen campaign be without google docs? scary thought.") For its actual campaign website property, the Brown campaign (BrownforUSSenate.com) went with the Indiana-based Prosper Group, while Coakley (MarthaCoakley.com) is using the Boston firm Liberty Concepts.

  • Finally, the truly important bit. With Organizing for America and Scott Brown's campaign duking it out online, there is one thing that they can agree upon: the Gotham font. OFA, of course, uses the sans-serif typeface as its signature. Brown's campaign has used the Obama-linked Gotham throughout its efforts. So whether tomorrow sees a Senator Martha Coakley or a Senator Scott Brown, there one winner either way: the good folks at Hoefler & Frere-Jones.

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