Republican candidates like Virginia's Ed Gillespie bet on Facebook and other social media sites in hopes that the online "likes" would transfer to the ballot boxes, and Gillespie's gamble almost paid off in the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
Even though polls the day before the election showed Gillespie behind Virginia powerhouse Sen. Mark Warner by seven points, Gillespie still pulled to within 16,700 votes, or less than 1 percent of Warner, reports Politico Magazine
, and he says his campaign's online push deserves the credit.
"I'm a believer in it," said Gillespie. "I knew we would be outspent and that the digital element of the campaign is a way to help mitigate being outspent."
For example, on the Sunday before Election Day, Gillespie made a stop at a Virginia Beach branch of Buffalo Wild Wings, but he wasn't there to eat and watch football. Instead, his digital adviser found that the sports chain was the second-most common Facebook "like" among conservative-leaning independents.
Gillespie's campaign took a picture of him watching football with the crowd and posted it
, paying Facebook $100 to make sure the image popped to the top of the newsfeeds of more than 25,000 targeted Virginians.
He said after the election that the staged posting "made perfect sense to me."
Until now, Republicans had fallen behind Democrats when it comes to using social media and real-time data. But times are changing, and Gillespie, who is a veteran from the campaigns of former President George W. Bush and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, said the lesson is clear.
Gillespie's campaign cost $5.9 million, and it spent about half a million, or 47 cents a vote, on digital targeting. But he wasn't the only one: Republicans Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado each spent about the same amount on digital targeting in the last few weeks of their winning Senate campaigns.
Their moves were made after Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on candidates to close the digital gap, and follow-up interviews with GOP strategists indicate that the gap did close some during this election cycle, reports Politico.
Gillespie, who was RNC chairman during the Bush campaign in 2004, saw firsthand the effects of microtargeting, and notes that even then "buying time on the Golf Channel was seen as a big thing."
But 10 years later, the marketing has become more sophisticated. In addition to chasing Facebook "likes," candidates can connect with voters through streaming video ads on sites like Hulu and YouTube, and engage with them through Twitter, allowing them to speak directly with voters without having to go through the media.
Early on, Warner had already banked $7 million and Gillespie was down by more than 20 points against the popular senator, reports Politico. In addition, television ads aren't efficient in Virginia, as the network programs cross borders and go into eight different markets, hitting non-Virginia voters.
Gillespie's efforts were headed by 29-year-old Eric Wilson, a former top technical employee of the American Action Network, who worked with a full staff to start Gillespie's push. The digital work started with a web app, Ground Control, which allowed it to track support among delegates.
After that, the digital footprint started spreading into other areas, using the RNC real-time database to target voters.
"Elections are won on the margins," Gillespie said. "And anything that affects the margin has an impact and contributes to the impact. I’m not sure I’d attribute flipping Virginia Beach to eating popcorn shrimp at Buffalo Wild Wings. But if it contributed to the margin, that’s helpful."
Sandy Fitzgerald has more than three decades in journalism and serves as a general assignment writer for Newsmax covering news, media, and politics.
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