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Republicans Hope to Maintain Social Media Edge into Midterm Elections

May 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As part of a look at how both political parties are connecting with constituents on the Web, Ray Suarez reports on how Republicans and their allies are looking to harness new media in advance of this year's elections.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: waging political battles online.

Recently, Ray Suarez looked at how Democrats are harnessing the power of new and social media.

Republicans are his focus in part two.

RAY SUAREZ: Republicans and their allies are stepping up efforts to use new and social media to enhance their chances of making a comeback in the fall election.

WOMAN: We’re also going to be launching a social networking site.

MAN: You can find out all about it at onlinetaxrevolt.com.

WOMAN: Tell your groups about it. Blog about it. And then help us start this movement.

RAY SUAREZ: To this end, each week, bloggers pack a room at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and stand up and share how they’re pushing out their message, often bypassing the mainstream media.

NEWT GINGRICH, former speaker of the House: This is the standard, elite, inside-the-beltway world view.

RAY SUAREZ: On this day, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich addressed the new media mavens trying to regain power now. Gingrich says new media used to be a young person’s business, but not anymore.

He himself has 1.3 million followers on Twitter and garnered 2.3 million views on YouTube for a speech.

NEWT GINGRICH: It allows a kind of conversation, a little bit strident, a little choppy, but nonetheless a real conversation that’s a lot more than a 20-second sound bite or a two-minute story. We advise every candidate to have as big a budget for new media as you have for radio and television.

RAY SUAREZ: Some bloggers tweeted out his message, getting instant traction in the blogosphere.

TABITHA HALE, FreedomWorks: I know there was live-streaming happening. So, I was watching somebody who is literally sitting on a beach in California paying attention to what’s happening right here.

RAY SUAREZ: Tabitha Hale is interactive media coordinator for FreedomWorks, which advocates lower taxes and less government.

TABITHA HALE: I think it’s something that candidates will overlook at their own peril. I think that the Republicans got killed with it in 2008. I think that we got really behind the ball, and they’re figuring it out now. They’re learning. I think we have made great strides in the past year.

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, two recent studies show, on Capitol Hill, Republicans have surpassed Democrats in the use of social media.

A Congressional Research Service study out this winter showed that 60 percent of the Capitol Hill Twitter-verse is composed of Republican members. Another recent study, “The Power of Twitter in Congress,” shows House Republicans sending close to five times as many tweets, or micro-messages, than their Democratic counterparts. In the Senate, Republican tweets outnumbered Democrats by a 35 percent margin.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wisc.: They knew they oversold the stimulus.

RAY SUAREZ: And, according to YouTube, 89 percent of congressional Republicans have their own personal YouTube channels, where they post both serious and fun videos of their professional and personal lives for constituents to see.

Democrats have used this social media vehicle less. Seventy-four percent have designated channels, and eight of the top 10 most viewed and subscribed channels are from the GOP.

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel covers conservative groups and their use of new media. He says the party out of power has more to protest.

DAVE WEIGEL, The Washington Post: It’s a perfect storm, because, just as the Republican Party is as — the base is as angry as it’s ever been, there is new technology that lets them blow past the media filters.

The new technology that wasn’t invented by conservatives is stuff like Twitter, like Facebook and other social networks — YouTube, where you can go to a rally and put it online, and as if it was on TV. It’s video that is no longer controlled by the media that you didn’t trust.

RAY SUAREZ: While reaching out can be positive, there are consequences of being always on, always out there, says Darrell West, the vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

DARRELL WEST, vice president and director of governance studies, Brookings Institution: There are pitfalls to governance. A lot of the messages that get communicated are trivial. They’re not very substantive. Many of the reactions are polarizing or very partisan. Sometimes, social media has empowered extreme viewpoints in American politics.

That makes it much more difficult to deliberate calmly on matters of major national importance. Noise doesn’t equal representativeness. The typical social media user is more white, higher-income, and better-educated. And, so, it is definitely not the typical American. It is a small slice of America.

RAY SUAREZ: But true believers, such as Facebook’s Adam Conner, say that slice of America is widening every day. He’s been training members and their staffs since he joined Facebook two-and-a-half years ago, and 300 members of Congress are now using Facebook for official purposes.

ADAM CONNER, associate manager for privacy and public policy, Facebook: I often use the analogy that these conversations are not new. People have always talked politics around the watercooler, at the office, over the backyard fence.

And, in the same way, people are always talking about these things online. And if you are not there and able to put your perspective and your official voice out there, then you are not part of the conversation, and I think what you wouldn’t want to do is not be part of the conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican Congressman Robert Goodlatte is a co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus.

REP. BOB GOODLATTE, R-Va.: I think that we have a long way to go in terms of fully understanding how well we can reach people about our ideas and activities and events and so on, and how inexpensive, compared to mailing a postcard or mailing a newsletter, how inexpensively you can reach large, large numbers of people by using new media.

But you have got to do it in a way that is of interest to them, because they have so many more alternative sources of information than they might have had 20 years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: At the annual George Washington University Politics Online Conference in Washington, political operatives tried to ensure that new media will grab voters in seminars such as “Holy Apps: How Will Augmented Reality, GPS, and Other Smart Apps Be Used in the 2010 Election?”

Rod Martin is a Republican activist and former adviser to PayPal, an e-commerce business. He now is readying what he calls a Republican answer to the left-leaning MoveOn.org.

ROD MARTIN, president, National Federation of Republican Assemblies: We want to be able to come in and enable really powerful conservative activism. And, eventually, when they trust us and we have earned their trust, we know we will — they will hand us $5 or $10 or $25. And a few million people doing that, it adds up.

MATT LIRA, director of new media, Office of the Republican Whip: And augmented reality, I believe, has the most potential to be a persuasive medium.

RAY SUAREZ: And Matt Lira, the new media adviser to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, weighed in on what is being called augmented reality, which would allow voters to point a mobile device at a certain environment to reveal relevant data about that environment on the screen, soliciting the voter’s opinions.

MATT LIRA: All this technology to restructure the relationship between the government and the constituents, I think is a — it could be a radical transformation, no less impactful than when television began to impact that relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Rob Willington, who did the surprisingly successful new media campaign for Senator Scott Brown, talked about 2010 techniques.

ROB WILLINGTON, president, Swiftcurrent Strategies: We’re going to see a lot of people just doing a little bit in their spare time. Online donations, I think, are going to be moving toward mobile donations. We’re going to be seeing the iPhone and also the iPad be used at political events.

RAY SUAREZ: The effect of this new media and social media push on the Republican Party in the coming midterm elections is not clear, West says.

DARRELL WEST: Sometimes, people become technology determinists. They think technology solves everything.

Marshall McLuhan was famous for saying, it’s the medium, and not the message. But people need to keep in mind it still is the message. It is the content and the timing of what they say that affects the national debate. And, so, people should not get confused by the nature of the platform.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet another push on new media is coming in the form of a growing number of conservative-backed startup online news organizations around the country. They’re focusing coverage on government and politics at a time when newspapers are cutting back.

Tom Rosenstiel heads Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

TOM ROSENSTIEL, director, Project for Excellence in Journalism: I think there are important questions to ask about anybody who represents themselves as a news organization. One of them is, what is the financing? Another is, what is the intent? Is it to spark public discussion? Or is it to forge certain outcomes?

RAY SUAREZ: There is no sign that any of the forms of new media will slow down. As Republicans push toward gains in 2010, the GOP leadership recently declared Twitter Day on Capitol Hill.