Republicans Enter the Digital Era

Strategist Mindy Finn has pushed GOP candidates to organize online. With the 2012 presidential race underway, they've finally caught on.

Mindy Finn - Chet Susslin NJ - banner.jpg

Once upon a time, the way to announce a presidential exploratory committee was to draw your family, closest friends, and reporters into a room. Against a backdrop of American flags, you would lay out a new vision for the country. Maybe throw in a balloon drop if you were feeling particularly ambitious, and boom! You would be on your way to running for the highest office in the land.

That is, until this year's likely GOP candidates decided to throw out the old rulebook.

"Like my Facebook page to get a special message exclusive to my Facebook supporters today at 3 pm," Tim Pawlenty tweeted on a Friday morning in March, leaving just enough time to get the cable news shows talking. That afternoon, he rolled out a swanky video on his Facebook page, announcing the initial phases of a presidential run. Instead of a balloon drop, Pawlenty showed wholesome images of his hometown of St. Paul, Minn., and deployed crescendoing orchestra music as he made the big reveal. Mitt Romney followed a similar tact, announcing his intentions via a video on his new website.

It was practically a dream come true for Republican operative Mindy Finn, who for years has been cajoling her party to get hip to the Internet and is one of Pawlenty's digital strategists. She was among the team that engineered the unveil -- a feat that took some quick "Ninja work" on the back end to ensure that it went off without a hitch.

"Instead of having people to an event and limiting it, the natural place to go was Facebook where half of American adults spend a lot of time," Finn says. "It was also a way to show the importance of voters and supporters."

In the not-so-distant past, colleagues would call on Finn, a defected journalist and ex-Capitol Hill staffer, only when they needed their computers fixed. In 2004, she had just been recruited to join the "eCampaign" for the Bush-Cheney reelection operation, and explaining her job to coworkers and the outside world was often the biggest battle of the day. Despite the important work that Finn and her fellow e-campaigners were doing -- marshaling volunteers online, maintaining a 7.5 million-strong e-mail list, creating Web videos, among other tactics that would be replicated on a more sophisticated scale in years to come -- they still felt like the redheaded stepchildren of the outfit, Finn says.

"Governor Pawlenty has a chance to really introduce himself through the Internet."

In subsequent roles with the Republican National Committee and Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential bid, Finn spent much of her time pushing the idea of online activism -- an arena in which Republicans had historically lagged. The Obama campaign's savvy with online campaigning was a major wake-up call, she says. Less than two days after the 2008 election, she and fellow Republican operative Patrick Ruffini launched, a website that urged the GOP to get with the times and served as a virtual meeting place for activists to discuss strategy.

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Naureen Khan is a staff reporter at National Journal.

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