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.

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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.

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.

"So much depends on other political forces and other political phenomena," Finn says. "When Democrats were out of power for all these years during the Bush administration, they didn't have the mouthpiece of the presidency and Congress. They had to look at low-cost, democratic ways to get their message out, and it just so happened that the Internet was taking off in society."

Seven years later, with the GOP out of the White House for the past 27 months, it's Republicans who have been taking the lead in online innovations, to Finn's delight. Strategists point to the successes of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., whose long-shot special-election candidacy was buoyed by hashtags, iPhone apps, and all the rest; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who parlayed a strong online presence into dollars and votes; and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who lugged videographers along with them to every rally and town hall for posting on Facebook and YouTube.

As for Finn, 30, she now sits atop Engage D.C., an all-Republican digital-strategy firm that builds websites, advises clients on Internet fundraising, and is rolling out new online tools. She and Ruffini have amassed a portfolio of work for Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., McDonnell, and, of course, Pawlenty. Finn believes that keen Web strategy for the Minnesota-nice former governor may just help him address what pundits call his greatest weakness as a presidential candidate -- that pesky charisma deficit.

"As voters evaluate a candidate, whether they realize it or not, they're asking two questions: Do they like you? And are you like me?" Finn says. "Governor Pawlenty has a chance to really introduce himself through the Internet and become a familiar face and a familiar friend."

Most gratifying for Finn is that there were more enthusiasts than skeptics when the idea was floated to use Facebook for the rollout of Pawlenty's potential candidacy. It signified that a new era had arrived. No one's going to be coming to her with computer bugs anytime soon.

"The next generation of top strategists for campaigns will be people that are digital natives," she says. "It won't be an afterthought for them. It's the basis from which they operate. When they think of the objectives of the campaign -- creating a narrative, or sending a message, recruiting volunteers, raising money, getting votes -- the first thing they'll think of is how to do it online."

Image credit: Chet Susslin