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.”