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Mitch McConnell's Internet Re-Election Adventure

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, July 15 2013

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The Republican Party hopes for a resurgence in 2014 propelled as much by a changing electoral battlefield as by autotune.

New York Times house statistician Nate Silver now projects the U.S. Senate to be split nearly down the middle by Democrats and Republicans after the 2014 elections. After surviving a dismal 2012, Republicans promise a party driven by a desire to reach out to younger voters and people of color, not changing their positions so much as modulating their pitch for a new audience. There is no greater example of this than the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, whose campaign is now presenting the dour Kentucky lawmaker to the public through pop-culture references and Internet humor.

The 71-year-old veteran lawmaker's re-election effort was the first political campaign out of the gate on Twitter recently with a reference to "Sharknado," the impressively awful science fiction film that aired last week on the cable network Syfy, as a political jab about Obamacare. The campaign lampooned McConnell's Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in an online music video that turned her words to song in a clear reference to a popular YouTube comedy series.

This digital flash might come as a surprise. Observers of the Internet in politics have opined that President Barack Obama's success online comes from a demonstrated comfort with face-to-face interaction — he can sit down for a Google Hangout with voters or do a Reddit question-and-answer session called an AMA and stick to his talking points with non-confrontational ease. Success online takes a certain type of expertise, in short, with retail politics. One could call it the digital equivalent of Joe Biden's ability to smile and eat ice cream — or grinningly perforate a debate opponent — at the same time. Obama's tweet-worthy quotations and the occasional dance move or verse of song, one has been conditioned to believe, an Internet candidate make.

McConnell fits none of those criteria. In 2009 Gail Collins famously wrote that the career politician was "a man with the natural charisma of an oyster." Two years later, Joshua Green added that McConnell was "owlish, phlegmatic, and gray."

He "often looks bothered," Green wrote — "as though lunch isn't agreeing with him."

This is not the traditional description of a politician born to do well online. And yet McConnell's campaign has attracted some of the highest-profile digital consultants the Republican Party has available. It's already been established that this team — led by Jesse Benton, who orchestrated the rise of that other Kentucky Republican, Rand Paul, and worked on the Internet-friendly presidential run of Paul's father Ron — aims to serve as a model for the GOP, blazing a trail they hope will lead the party out of its recent years in a technological wilderness. The Senate's top Republican — irrespective of any pallor or avian aspect — will be, they say, the Republican Party's next Internet candidate.

The campaign's digital director, Vincent Harris, says the strategy is actually pretty simple: McConnell's re-elect is having "fun."

"Average voters are online all the time not to connect with politicians, but to interact with the drama in their friends' lives, and to interact with memes and pop culture," he says. "Senator McConnell understands that, and the campaign understands that, and that is why the campaign is having a lot more fun using the Internet than I would say that any other campaign I've ever worked with," he said.

Harris is part of a younger generation of Republicans who have been pushing to modernize the party's operations. He worked on Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz' successful primary campaign last year. On board with him is Cyrus Krohn, co-founder of social media analytics firm CrowdVerb and a former online director at the RNC. (The campaign declined to make Krohn available for this article.)

Beyond videos, Facebook memes and Tumblr accounts, the McConnell campaign's digital strategy is focused on persuading supporters to take action. The campaign is using PunchTab as a service to award points to McConnell's supporters for taking actions such as sharing content, volunteering and making phone calls. Supporters receive additional points when their followers click on the McConnell links that they've shared through their social media accounts.

How to decide which requests to make of which voters is where CrowdVerb comes in. Headquartered in Seattle, the company checks social media accounts against voter files in the hopes of identifying voters online. Combined with analytics from the firm Crimson Hexagon, the idea is to seek out people with online influence whose continued support might lead to more money or volunteer time.

CrowdVerb is also helping the campaign to do "reverse donor matching." This means that the company is helping the campaign to find potential donors through social media by identifying attributes of individuals that match those who have already donated. Once the campaign gets the list of those people with similar attributes, it will then start a new online advertising campaign targeted at those individuals.

The McConnell campaign's theories are based in large part on the practice established by President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election effort. Obama 2012 officials say they checked supporters' Facebook friends against voter files to reach five million voters, many of whom could not have been reached by phone and would have been difficult to track down in person. The team also used a customized tool from Visible Intelligence that scored 50,000 Twitter feeds to monitor conversations and sentiment. The campaign used this information to ask those influencers to take action on Twitter on the campaign's behalf.

And, famously, the campaign built back-end software to allow staffers to pull from multiple databases at once — meaning what the fundraising team knew about a person, voter contact or volunteer staff would also know, and vice versa. Harris' own firm, he says, is working on a customized platform to integrate data for McConnell's campaign. Some data-driven targeting already takes place. For example, if someone visits the site and hasn't donated, the donate button will appear more prominently, Harris said. Someone visiting the site based in Louisville, Kentucky, will see a different set of endorsements than someone visiting from Lexington.

"If someone comes to the site after having signed a Second Amendment petition, well, they will see more information about guns than someone who hasn't signed such a petition," says Harris.

This might help McConnell's online effort overcome that natural charisma, something that has hounded the Senate minority leader in recent years. According to several recent polls, McConnell isn't particularly popular in Kentucky, with an average job "approval" rating of negative seven percent. But McConnell is also fixture in Kentucky politics, with a powerful state network of Republicans, well-funded campaign bank accounts, and a position he knows well how to use to build support.

So far, his digital efforts are certainly attracting attention. The parody video of his Democratic opponent, Lundergan Grimes, racked up more than half a million views and was mentioned in dozens of news articles. Lundergan Grimes, meanwhile, hadn't established a website of her own prior to her campaign announcement, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee took advantage of that to produce a few sites their own about her candidacy. Google searches for her name initially served up an attack ad against her.

McConnell's team is also full of online veterans. While its chief, Jesse Benton, declined repeated interview requests, I know him as someone who is steeped in both pioneering and unconventional campaigning ideas.

All this perhaps accounts for McConnell's willingness to invest the resources to vigorously fend off any challengers across media, including ones where he might be less than native.

University of Kentucky's political science professor Stephen Voss notes that Kentucky's voters are an unpredictable lot. Despite voting in Republicans in the Senate, there's a large contingent of voters who are registered as Democrats in Kentucky. As local columnist Don Wilkins notes in the Messenger-Inquirer, there are 499,985 more voters in Kentucky registered as Democrats than registered Republicans.

"Here's the wonderful mystery of Kentucky politics," Voss said. "That same electorate that swept conservative senator Rand Paul into office immediately sent a moderate Democrat back into the Governor's mansion with overwhelming support. There's a large moderate group of swing voters who tend to be registered as Democrats, but who tend to be too conservative to support the national Democratic party, and they hold the cards when you get an election like this."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)'s 2014 Re-election Campaign:

Digital consultant: Harris Media
Social media analysis: CrowdVerb
Web site customization service: Personyze
Rewards and Incentives service: PunchTab