Scott Brown’s Massachusetts Insurgency Shows How Online Organizing Has Shifted the Political Calculus
January 18th, 2010
Republican Scott Brown didn’t have much when he started running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, but he did have himself and the internet:
The fundamental dynamic of the race fell in place months ago, when Brown set off in a pickup truck for the only campaign the Republican could afford: retail, door-to-door. The campaign was so strapped for cash that aides described the $40,000 spent in the primary as a major hit. Brown could not afford to mail out absentee ballots, often so crucial in a close race. “So our program consists of e-mail and Facebook and Twitter,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign official.
A Scott Brown twenty years ago might have had the pickup truck and the personal charisma, but he wouldn’t have had the cheap or free online communications channels that a modern campaign can use. Outreach is only half of the equation: an ongoing connection is the crucial second part that helps a candidate translate supporters’ enthusiasm into donations, volunteer time and votes. Email, Facebook and Twitter are classic “force multipliers,” magnifying the potential effect and results of every speech, every shaken hand and every television commercial.
Once he began to build momentum strong enough to show up in the polls, the internet opened up a whole new community for Brown to tap. Conservative activists around the country might not be able to vote in Massachusetts, but they could certainly send Brown money, which they did to the tune of roughly $1 million per day last week. Another measure of his success: Brown currently has five times as many Facebook friends and four times as many YouTube video views as his Democratic opponent Martha Coakley, though online interest is certainly no iron-clad indicator of electoral success.
And despite her apparently inept campaign Coakley may yet pull off a victory, since like most special elections tomorrow is likely to see a relatively low voter turnout, giving the edge to a candidate able to persuade his or her supporters to actually show up and cast a ballot. Organizing For America (itself an online-enabled entity), labor unions and progressive organizations have cranked up the heat this weekend, making hundreds of thousands of calls and neighborhood visits and flooding the airwaves with commercials, helping to make it possible possible and perhaps even likely that Massachusetts will keep Kennedy’s seat in the Democratic column and deny Republicans and chance to block the heathcare reform bill.
But the fact that Scott Brown is even in the game at all is a testament in part to the power of the internet to help an insurgent candidate bootstrap himself up to the point of being more than competitive with an establishment darling. In this case, it’s helped an obscure state senator thrill conservative activists from coast to coast and threaten the future of a president’s top legislative priority.