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How Online Organizing Helped Ted Cruz Win His Republican Primary

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, August 2 2012

FreedomWorks volunteers canvassed voters all over Texas using software and data from Political Gravity

Ted Cruz was the darling of the right yesterday as he basked in his victory over David Dewhurst in the Republican primary runoff for the chance to become Texas’ next U.S. senator. And he was the darling of the rightroots, too, many of whom turned out in force to support his candidacy.

A conservative, Tea Party-backed figure challenging the favored candidate of Gov. Rick Perry and establishment Republicans, Cruz won, reports say, thanks to a long and hard-fought ground campaign. But his primary effort is interesting because it shines a light on the structure of a modern Senate race, one that mixes traditional door-knocking with high-tech tools, editorial board meetings with blogger outreach, a corps of volunteers with the unpredictable influence of outside groups. Given that Cruz beat Dewhurst by taking nearly 57 percent of the vote according to preliminary returns, all despite being outspent three to one, it’s a campaign worth a closer look.

Independent observers, Cruz supporters and campaign staff aren’t saying that the Internet played a deciding role in his victory. It was a combination of these outside groups, Republican women and Cruz's own hard work that put him over the top, said Dave Jennings, a Texas blogger in the Southeast Houston area who supported Dewhurst.

"Ted won because he worked his tail off," Jennings said in an interview. "He never turned down an opportunity to talk to any group large or small — I've been at events where there were only five people in the room."

But online finesse was a significant part of Cruz’s campaign — in fact, his election effort began on the web.

Jennings added that Cruz’s blogger strategy, devised by digital director Vincent Harris, also helped boost Cruz’s populist campaign.

“Ted announced for Senate on a blogger conference call in January 2011 and continued engaging with bloggers one on one and in calls the entire time,” Harris said in an e-mail exchange.

Harris launched an initiative to give conservative Texas bloggers access to weekly phone calls with Cruz — but only if they posted a promotional badge on their blogs.

Dewhurst, on the other hand, thought he could win the race through negative radio and television ads, Jennings said.

Jennings also played down the Tea Party's role in Cruz' success, pointing to the order in which he thanked his supporters — Republican women first, then the Tea Party, and then independent conservative groups. Cruz garnered more than 631,000 votes according to preliminary tallies, beating Dewhurst’s 480,000 and change. The ratio was similar online, to the extent that Facebook likes offer any insight there: 86,499 likes on Cruz’s page to Dewhurst’s 43,357.

A look at Cruz’ web pages seems to bolster Jennings’ point: One of the central figures in a photograph posted on Cruz’s victory landing page is an elderly woman. In addition, the featured grassroots supporter at a microsite run by the campaign is another older woman.

“Republican women certainly were incredibly active online,” Harris said. “From insights on Facebook I can tell you that roughly 60% of Cruz's Facebook likes are 45+ in age.”

But outside groups were certainly active, too. FreedomWorks Political Action Committee, a Super PAC, is one of the Tea Party groups that endorsed Ted Cruz last June. Since then it's been holding rallies and organizing supporters on the ground to get the word out on Cruz's behalf. Just last week, it held a rally featuring several big figures for the Tea Party who have lent Cruz their names: Glenn Beck, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Sarah Palin.

But the last-minute, high-profile push was just part of an organized ground game FreedomWorks said involved 20,000 volunteers tapping into the voter databases maintained and built by the conservative software company Political Gravity, based in Frisco, Texas.

"Political Gravity was used used heavily in Texas to canvass voters, allowing our volunteers to maximize their impact by targeting three for four, and four for four conservative primary voters, voters who voted in the last three out of four, and four out of four Republican primaries in the state," said Michael Duncan, FreedomWorks' communications manager in an interview.

“Three for four” and “four for four” is campaignspeak for voters who voted in at least three of the last four primary elections. Every door knock recorded by a volunteer using the Political Gravity mobile app on FreedomWorks’ behalf goes back to their database, where it can help them improve their predictive models for where to send volunteers next. Cruz’s campaign was one of the first where conservatives took Political Gravity for a test drive this year, a tool that — if it really works as well as FreedomWorks says it is — puts conservative outside groups in the same competitive class as the Obama campaign when it comes to field organizing software.

"We're merging this offline GOP passion of the Tea Party movement with these online tools that allows them to maximize their effect,” Duncan said.

FreedomWorks held 28 training sessions for volunteers between June 2011 and the runoff election on Tuesday. Activists were trained on how to use Political Gravity's neighborhood canvassing application, as well as social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. FreedomWorks activists knocked on 125,000 doors, the group says, which organizers mapped out with Political Gravity's software. The software not only produced walk lists, but provided activists with maps that mapped out the addresses provided to them to produce the most efficient routes, said Roy Magno, Political Gravity's executive vice president. Activists were able to record their contacts with the voters and any information about their concerns and issues back into the system through their handheld devices. They could also print out the walk maps and addresses if they didn't have a smart phone.

"We had voter data based on prior elections, but also using Political Gravity either on smartphones, or on walking maps, we encourage our activists to aggregate additional information so we can follow up with the people we find who agree with us," so that we can then make sure that those people get to the polls," Duncan said.

Duncan didn’t respond to a request to verify the 20,000 number, but he did acknowledge that some “superstar” volunteers did much more work than others who just talked to their immediate neighbors.

In addition to the door-knocking, FreedomWorks used an online phone-banking system provided by FLS Connect. FreedomWorks volunteers called Cruz supporters that they had already identified on the day of the election to remind those people to go out and vote. Volunteers made more than one million phone calls between last June and last night, Duncan said.

The combined fervor around the Republican primary led to higher-than-expected turnout, although it’s unclear if anyone deserves particular credit. The Austin American Statesman pointed out Wednesday that more than 1.1 million Republican voters went to the polls in a state with a voting population of 18 million.

During FreedomWorks’ phone campaign, volunteers also asked recipients interested in Cruz whether they would serve as distribution centers for promotional campaign material for the candidate. This resulted in 50 campaign distribution centers dotted around the state. In all, these volunteer centers distributed more than 30,000 yard signs and 9,000 bumper stickers.

"By using these online tools to identify these people who would act as distribution centers, that's how the grassroots offset the flashy, expensive TV ads that David Dewhurst used to blanket the whole state," Duncan said.

To be clear, Cruz’s campaign and its supporters didn't exactly ignore television, either. And while Internet campaigners say online ads are an increasingly useful medium for persuasion, TV ads are still the most proven way to move the needle. But Harris, Cruz’s digital director, says this election showed that online organizing can work even among groups of voters not traditionally targeted online.

“Ted's support online really encompasses all age groups,” Harris said. “Social media, blogs, and new media in general really aren't only tools of young people, and increasingly they're being used by older voters to help get out the vote. We wanted our digital profile online to reflect the work of the grassroots on the ground instead of siloing off digital away from political which many campaigns still do.”