Scott Brown’s New Media Revolution

January 25th, 2010 at 11:57 pm | 4 Comments |

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Scott Brown’s win was impressive, but of course, he didn’t do it alone. Behind his revolutionary online campaign was new media strategist Rob Willington, a man who made Senator-Elect Brown’s populism, well, popular.

It all started in the fall of 2009, in September, when several key campaign staff met with then-State Senator Scott Brown to discuss his long-shot bid for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat. Rob Willington, a former executive director for the Massachusetts GOP and the New Media Director for Brown’s campaign, set out to harness the energy of the Republican grassroots using new media tools.

“We knew we were going to be underdogs,” Willington told FrumForum.  “We knew we needed to run an insurgent campaign with an aggressive online strategy, because we were running against a political machine that owned the entire state.”

Brown’s campaign started modestly – collecting emails from potential supporters; printing little cards to remind targeted voters of the special election date. At the beginning of the campaign, Willington had to show campaign staff how to use Google Documents instead of just plain emails. “When we thought we were going to be a poor campaign, I had to do everything [with regards to our online presence],” said Willington. Campaign staffers watched So Goes the Nation, a documentary about the ’04 Ohio elections, where turnout was key and Republicans turned the tide based on personal voter contact like door-knocking and phone-calling.

“Special Elections are different animals. People often forget the differences, which dramatically change your political and web strategy,” Willington twittered after the campaign. The difference, he told FrumForum, was the emphasis on get-out-the-vote efforts. Because of the usual apathy that accompanies special elections, Brown’s campaign strategy was geared towards mobilizing volunteers and voters for the January 19th ballot.

In the weekend before the election, Willington set up a series of Google ads, to appear in Republican-leaning districts around Scott Brown’s ten regional campaign offices. “We did targeted Google blasts in ten different regions of the state… around our regional offices asking people to volunteer. That was a way for us to flood our offices with extra volunteers for the last weekend of the campaign,” said Willington.

This tactic was overwhelmingly successful. In the weekend leading up to the vote, volunteers queued up for up to an hour and a half, waiting for their turn to phone-bank on behalf of the candidate. Willington was confronted with a problem that he had never dreamt of: volunteers were showing up at such a pace that printers could not keep up with demand for targeted voter calling lists.

His solution was quick in the making. Over the course of just a few days, Willington and his new media staff (now numbering three), developed Blackberry, iPhone and Android apps that allowed individuals to download phone numbers and call voters on their own.

Willington’s strength was his ability to design solutions that allowed Brown’s campaign the ability to harness grassroots energy, to allow all those who wished to participate a chance to do so, even from the comfort of their own home. One new media project that gave Rob Willington a laugh was his talk radio text message blasts.

“I love the way that Democrats say to Republicans, ‘Oh, you own talk radio, it’s not fair. We need to regulate talk radio,’” said Willington. “But I never felt that campaigns ever utilized the quote-unquote ‘ownership’ of radio as much as we should have.”

Willington set out to solve this problem, and handed new tools to the grassroots in the process. Over the course of a few months, the Brown campaign collected over 7,500 cell phone numbers. Every time Democrat Martha Coakley went on the radio, the Brown campaign sent out a text blast with the radio station name and call-in details, suggesting that Republicans call in with their questions.

“We would just sit back, and [Martha Coakley] would just get bombarded with questions from our supporters, even when she was on a liberal talk-show,” chuckled Willington. “In fact, one of the questions was so good, we recorded it and turned it into a YouTube video.”

Willington’s amusement turned to genuine hope for victory as the campaign slipped into the New Year. Suddenly, Brown’s ‘insurgent campaign’ looked like a campaign with a legitimate chance to win. “I think that day came in early January when we started raising huge amounts of money online,” said Willington. To continue driving Brown’s campaign, Willington organized tremendously successful ‘moneybombs’. At its peak, Senator-Elect Brown’s website was bringing in an astounding $1 million a day.

Looking back on it, Willington credits his rapport with his fellow campaign staffers for being crucial to the adaptability and creativeness of his new media campaign.

“Because I worked with each person in each department in previous campaigns with the Mass. GOP, these relationships were very powerful for our web operations,” said Willington, a former political director for the state Republican Party. “Good ideas never got stifled. In terms of new media, there was never much of a debate… There wasn’t a process of getting a ten person committee to deliberate these issues. People were just like, ‘Rob, if you think that’s good, just run with it. Go!’”

Just what’s next for this new media whiz? Well, only time will tell. For now, he’s hoping to help capitalize on the momentum generated by Brown’s game-changing win in among the bluest of states. “There are a number of Republicans now strongly considering running for Congress because of what they saw with Scott Brown’s campaign,” said Willington. “They saw what happened with independents.”

Willington also plans to continue traveling the country to give workshops on campaign strategy, and may even come to D.C. to join Brown’s staff. Regardless, he says to continue watching out for Brown’s new media strategy as a senator: “He’s going to have an open dialogue with the members of the commonwealth. This means Twitter, Facebook, text message updates to people, you name it. People are going to know what Scott Brown is doing when he hits the ground running in D.C.”

Recent Posts by Tim Mak



4 Comments so far ↓

  • franco 2

    Utilizing new technology and implementing sound campaign strategy certainly has its’ merits. However, too often the political wonks at this site and elsewhere place undue emphasis on these machinations and not enough on nominating a candidate who rings true with voters.

    While he certainly ran a nearly flawless campaign, it is dangerous to believe that these innovative tactics were responsible for Scott Brown’s victory. Had Scott Brown not forthrightly declared his intentions to thwart the Democrat agenda on health care and terror, had he acted like a John McCain or an Olympia Snowe cowering in fear of offending Democrats (and mis-reading independents as moderates) he would have lost. Those who went to the polls to support him would have stayed home for the most part with nothing to be enthusiastic about. The Brown campaign would never have reached the level to where these campaign innovations could be used.

    Lessons can also be taken from the opposition who were operating from old models, unaware of the sea-change in public opinion. They too dismissed the impact of tea party independents. They listened to each other ridicule them, dismiss them, downplay and ignore them. It is clear now that the “teabaggers” are now taken seriously by the media and Democrats. Those at this site and other GOP elites who live in the Ny Times Washington Post echo chamber still seem to be in denial. Even Chris Matthews has basically renounced his previous declarations that the movement was “fringe” and “crazy”, but not one word at this site still.

    The GOP has been way too focused on process, marketing and the science of politics. There is an elitism that permeates their thought process and you can see it when they start to discuss these things, as though people are mindless sheep and will respond to marketing ploys and GOTV tactics like automatons.

    These poli-sci types spend so much time studying the trees in the arboretum they forget what a real forest even looks like. Frum Forum is behind the curve when it come to the mood of the public, insisting on outdated models, and substandard candidates like Specter and McCain.

    I’m still waiting for a real assessment on Frum Forum of the meaning of this race and how it will effect other races. I am also waiting for some word on the McCain/ Hatworth race with Sarah Palin’s endorsement. Instead the focus seems to be on anything but.

  • DFL

    This comes from a fairly old fogey- very interesting interview of a very interesting young political functionary. On top of what Howard Dean did in 2004, what Brown and his campaign shows the future. But I wonder if what the Brown campaign did will be limited to angry political insurrectionists and won’t work so well for incumbents.

    Thanks for the work, Mr. Mak.

  • timjames

    Mr. Willington was actually a bit behind the curve on technology, which is disheartening considering his company’s reputation will largely be based on the Brown win.

    Actually, our office on the Cape was largely responsible for the early publicity and synergy created for the statewide campaign.

    I personally suggested an adwords campaign during the primary and was told by those in this article that no money was available for the project. At that time over 50% of the voters we were contacting hadn’t even heard of Scott Brown. Nevertheless, I launched an out-of-pocket adwords campaign to generate publicity for Senator Brown for the month leading up to the primary election. This is one major reason for his early momentum.

    Similarly, the offices were not using Google Docs at all when I walked in the door. The management would often fumble to find necessary materials to distribute. Again, I introduced this concept in our Hyannis office to make real-time volunteer lists accessible by multiple parties. Later, the campaign adopted the application to keep track of the various offices’ volunteer scheduling.

    Anyway, as other commenters have stated, don’t put too much stock in claims from the campaign that their foresight and familiarity with technology made it happen. It was indeed a grassroots effort that adopted the best ideas as they came up in what was a very quick camnpaign.

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