The Dawn Of Rand Paul’s High-Tech Presidential Campaign

Andrew A. Nelles/AP
Andrew A. Nelles/AP

The general public might not appreciate just how badly Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign flamed out online, but you can bet every campaign consultant worth his or her salt has studied the crash of “Project ORCA” in detail. It wasn’t just the amazing Election Day failure of the system; Romney’s campaign always seemed to under-perform online, despite the candidate’s reputation for technocratic savvy and managerial brilliance. Hopefully every Republican candidate heading into the 2016 race understands that a bigger, smoother, more aggressive online presence is needed.

This is especially true for the younger candidates, and most especially for Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who has been so active in online issues, such as the growth of the Surveillance State.  Everyone expects Paul to have a knockout online operation, a fully armed and operational campaign Death Star, when he formally announces his candidacy on Tuesday.

The bar he needs to hurdle has been set, as Politico notes that first-up 2016 contender Ted Cruz made a few small mistakes, such as leaving key website domains containing his name in other hands – most significantly, which is currently hosting pro-Obama pro-amnesty messages.  (Ouch.)

Addendum: The domain was registered by another owner more than ten years ago, so there is little the Senator’s presidential campaign can do about it today, if the owner does not wish to sell it.

Going first means your mistakes become teachable moments for your rivals, and Politico makes it sound like Team Paul has learned a few lessons. A powerful online campaign framework is ready to roll on Tuesday:

Different domains will funnel traffic to the same official campaign website. Google staffers plan to be with Paul’s top aides in Louisville., as well as a satellite campaign office in Austin, Texas, to help decipher the optimal moments to blast out digital ads and measure their real-time web performance. And Paul isn’t just using social media like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter to spread word about his political ambitions. He’s also pushing out all-important links to his own website, where he can solicit donations, email addresses and other vital information that will lead to more asks for money, more invitations to attend rallies and more ways for people to engage with his expected upstart presidential bid.

[…] When it comes to his campaign’s tech game, Paul tends to be one step ahead of his 2016 competitors. He’s been courting Silicon Valley’s libertarian-minded leaders since his first Senate campaign in 2010. Last November, Paul hired Cruz’s top digital strategist. On the web, Paul regularly trolls his 2016 rivals with snarky tweets and gimmicky hashtags (#StandwithRand #thingstorunfrom #hillaryslosers). His digital team created a fake phone conversations between Clinton and Jeb Bush widely shared on social media, and Paul has even paid for ads running atop the leading search engine results for his opponents.

The other young candidate everyone expects to run a Web-savvy campaign, Marco Rubio, has also put together a formidable online team, while Hillary Clinton inherited both veteran operatives and reams of valuable donor data from Barack Obama’s highly successful 2012 online effort. Clinton also has her own email server, which might come in handy.

But Cruz and Paul seem to enjoy campaigning online more than anyone else potentially running in 2016. Politico quotes strategists who wonder if some of Paul’s snarktastic online adventures, summarized in the excerpt above, might blow back on him by making him seem immature.

That’s not how the Internet works, as the extremely juvenile Obama 2012 effort should have demonstrated. Voters directly aware of Paul’s social-media exploits are likely to be impressed by his wit and willingness to engage, addressing the online generation with their preferred idiom. Older voters who read about projects like the #hillaryslosers hashtag (Paul crowing about how virtually everyone Clinton endorsed in the 2014 midterms got creamed) in dead-tree legacy media are unlikely to hold Twitter snark against him, as they might not fully appreciate the impact of social media campaigns. It’s difficult to properly explain Twitter hashtags to people who don’t Tweet.

Republican candidates have an unfortunate habit of leaning toward staid, reserved campaigns, in pursuit of credit for “dignity” and “fair play” they never actually get. Democrats, meanwhile, use every trick in the book, and feel free to punch below the belt. It’s refreshing to see Paul, Cruz, and Rubio putting together serious online teams and embracing the Internet. Time-honored campaign wisdom says “the medium is the message.” Previous Republican campaigns fretted that using the Internet aggressively would send an undignified message that turned off deadly-serious voters.

The Clinton campaign team is likely to discover that using cutting-edge online technology to push an antediluvian, unappealing candidate to millennials is an uphill battle, especially against candidates who hail from the Internet generation.

On paper, Clinton is getting the keys to a powerful online machine, but it was built for a very different candidate. Judging by their recent media appearances, Clinton’s people don’t seem to grasp how much she hurt herself with the Internet generation by pretending to be a clueless old grandma who doesn’t really understand email, in a bid to deflect her secret-server scandal. Paul and Cruz, by contrast, seem to live online, as much as the average college student.

The 2012 campaign delivered an important reminder about the importance of empathy and intimacy, which have become the most important voter measurements of a candidate’s character. Exit polling showed Romney cleaning up in virtually every category of voter preference, except the one that killed him, the empathy metric. To show the Internet generation that he or she is “just like them” and “understands their life,” a candidate must be comfortable online, and run a virtual campaign machine powerful enough to impress voters who have very high standards for online competence.

That’s doubly true when the candidate plans to speak prominently about Internet issues, and wishes to be taken seriously as an expert. A dazzling online performance this week will do Rand Paul’s campaign launch a world of good. Conversely, he can expect even the smallest stumble to be heavily scrutinized, and worked into hostile op-eds questioning just how deeply he understands the Internet he says Big Government has penetrated too heavily.

On Sunday night, Rand Paul released a viral video teasing his presidential campaign. People will expect the “different kind of Republican” presented in this video to have an enormous digital footprint.