(06/29/2012)– Conservative Super Pacs turn to social media and internet to expand reach
By Ed Pilkington, Amanda Michel, The Guardian
Right-wing Super Pacs, the partisan groups seeking to evict Barack Obama from the White House through a massive injection of private cash, have begun to invest in social media and internet-based advertising in the hope of further amplifying their impact.
With the presidential election four months away, the Super Pacs are beginning to turn their attention towards newer digital technologies that allow political campaigns to tightly target their messages to key voters in the swing states.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are all now employing dedicated teams to work directly with the Super Pacs in an attempt to help them build internet presence.
Google has three separate teams of skilled political campaigners working on the 2012 election – one liases with the Democratic campaigns, one with Republicans, and the third works with what it calls “independent expenditure groups”, largely the Super Pacs.
They operate a strict firewall, Google says, between the independent expenditure team and the other two, in line with campaign finance laws that bar Super Pacs from co-ordinating directly with political candidates or parties.
Sean Harrison, who runs Google’s Super PAC operation, is a former Republican campaign manager who used to work for Citizens United, the organisation that leant its name to the controversial supreme court judgment that unleashed a flood of private money into this year’s election cycle.
“When you look at online advertising, one of the fastest growth areas is politics, and within politics one of the fastest growth areas are the independent expenditure groups and Super Pacs,” Harrison said.
Within Super Pacs, the fastest growing appear to be those on the political right. That’s in tune with the overall landscape of the 2012 election in which Republican Super Pacs, backed by a handful of billionaire donors, have managed to raise vastly more money than their Democratic equivalents.
By some calculations, these conservative outliers may amass more than $1bn by election day. Most of that is being spent on traditional negative advertising on television, but a growing proportion is being redirected to online outlets.
Several Republican Super Pacs are already proving adept at deploying social media to engage and persuade voters. The larger-than-life impression made by the libertarian congressman from Texas, Ron Paul, during the Republican primaries was partly achieved with the help of a Super PAC called Endorse Liberty, which used more than 90% of the $4m it raised to buy online ads on Google, Facebook, YouTube and sites such as StumbleUpon.com
ForAmerica, a group founded by the conservative activist Brent Bozell, has 2.2m followers on Facebook. That is more even than Romney’s official campaign page.
In the internet war with the Democrats, ForAmerica is hugely outgunned by Obama’s re-election campaign, which has 27 million Facebook followers, many of whom were attracted in his first presidential run in 2008.
But tellingly, a relatively obscure group such as ForAmerica has 800,000 people liking, sharing or commenting on its Facebook updates compared with 740,000 for Obama.
The contrast is much more pronounced when compared with the Facebook page of Obama’s main Super Pac, Priorities USA. It has 21,000 followers and according to Facebook just 14 people interacting with it.
Another conservative group making waves on the web is RightChange. Its founders, professionals from film and television, aim to “bring a new approach to a predictable political methodology.”
They post videos on social media platforms, closely targeting independent and Republican voters in key swing states. Their films have Madison Avenue production values, combined with sharply written dialogue that accuses Obama of being the “most arrogant man in the world”.
RightChange believes their approach can be more effective than the “traditional political sound bite that is sometimes ignored”. And they might be right – their Facebook page has 2.4 million “likes”.
Election watchdogs fear that the mushrooming of Super Pacs is having a distorting effect on the 2012 election through the sheer amount of private money being spent this cycle. Such distortion is likely to be further pronounced by the use of social media and online targeting that allows the groups to reach millions of voters who have tuned out from television ads.
“The concern is that we will now see the kind of negative advertising we are used to on TV screens spread across the web, without knowing who is throwing the mud,” said Mary Boyle of the non-partisan watchdog Common Cause. “That can lead to cynicism which ends with people not voting or participating at all.”
‘May the odds be ever in your favor’
The advantage to a political campaign of taking its messaging online is that it allows a much tighter targeting of voters. While television can only hone broadcasts to the level of a region or city, internet ads can be pinpointed to specific ages, gender, voting behaviour, interests and zip code of individual users.
More significantly, political messages can be served to voters through their friends – a far more persuasive path than cold-calling. The approach is all the more effective if social media lists of friends are linked to a campaign’s own information on voters contained in voter file databases.
Karl Rove and the oil tycoons the Koch brothers have created two separate voter file databases.
If they succeed in putting those databases to the use of the Super Pacs they have founded, such as Rove’s Crossroads GPS, they will have the ability to increase the impact of the money they are flinging at the election and ensure that it is co-ordinated between them.
The possibilities opened up by the new digital technology was on full display in the recent recall election in Wisconsin where the Republican governor Scott Walker fended off a challenge from Democrat Tom Barrett. Super Pacs on both sides bombarded the state with targeted online ads, focusing on the tiny demographic of just 4% or so of the Wisconsin electorate that remained undecided.
Trade union groups backing Barrett used tools developed by a New York startup, Amicus, that allowed its members to reach registered voters through Facebook friend lists.
On the other side, the Republican Governors Association notched up 17m impressions through online display ads, 3m through pre-roll video, 6m through Facebook ads and 2m through Twitter. Facebook helped the RGA to focus its adverts on undecided voters through a system it dubbed “exclusion targeting” – a distribution network that avoided serving ads to already committed voters, whether Democratic or Republican, thus increasing the efficiency and efficacy of the messaging.
Younger voters are a natural target for political campaigns, given their web-savviness and the time they spend online. In 2008, Obama did very well within this demographic, winning the votes of two-thirds of voters under 30, but a new Romney-supporting Super PAC called Crossroads Generation is trying to regain the initiative.
In May it launched a $50,000 social media ad campaign to reach younger voters. As part of the campaign, the group bought promoted Tweets which it posted during the MTV Movie Awards.
The tweets all had relentlessly youth-oriented content, and fitted the Super PAC’s theme that under Obama young people are suffering. “It’s harder to get a job than it is to survive the #HungerGames. May the odds be ever in your favor,” one tweet said.
Crossroads Generation has begun to attract the attention of the big players in the Super PAC field, with Rove giving $750,000. The donation may not be entirely altruistic – as Rove is certain to be closely watching the group’s progress.
“We are a testing ground on how to use new technology and how to reach younger voters,” said Kristen Soltis, an adviser to Crossroads Generation. “The big Super Pacs we are aligned with will draw lessons from us.”
Crossroads Generation’s website was designed by EngageDC, an agency advising political campaigns and companies on the use of digital media. It was founded by Patrick Ruffini, a top Republican strategist who until 2007 was the online campaign director of the Republican National Committee and before that an internet strategist on George Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
Ruffini thinks that the closer the presidential election approaches, the greater will be the focus on targeting advertising through websites and social media. “What will happen online is that you’ll reach a point of saturation. After Labor Day you won’t be able to buy ad space on TV any more, and then online will seem a more attractive vehicle.”
There have been precedents to what might come this year. In November 2010, Bipac, the business-industry political action committee that has been dubbed the “super Super PAC”, bought up the entire YouTube homepage on election day.
That meant that anyone logging on to YouTube that day would see the Bipac ad – the equivalent in scale of running a TV ad during the Super Bowl watched by more than 100 million viewers.
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