The Wilderness . Issue 43 . 2 19 15 . Stephen Miller .Tweet
Within hours of Jeb Bush announcing his exploratory PAC for a Presidential run last December, anyone who Googled his name was treated instantly to Google Ad Words (ads based on search queries) with their results criticizing him. The small ads slammed Bush as a big government, pro Common Core, squishy establishment moderate and included a link. All someone had to do was click. This kind of online tactic reeked of a stunt Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton’s digital team, virtually unbeatable in two elections now, would pull in an early attempt to smear who their campaign believes is the early 2016 Republican nominee. But it was neither.
It was Rand Paul’s Pac.
When members of media asked Paul’s representatives about the ads, Senior Paul Adviser Doug Stafford responded with “mostly because we like to amuse ourselves.” Paul’s team also ran ads against Mike Huckabee shortly after he walked off his Fox News set as well as poking Chris Christie on Twitter. The intent here is clear. A big message to the old establishment that this can be a new party utilizing data as weapons that attracts youth and internet culture; the fatal flaw to both John McCain’s meme riddled campaign and Mitt Romney’s unwillingness to reach out to younger audiences. Paul is clearly trying to paint himself as the suitable cool and mischievous outsider in a coming election of tired establishment retreads on both sides. He’s engaging non-traditional voters with non-traditional tactics.
And it might just be crazy enough to work.
In a recent Qunnipac University poll, Paul was virtually tied with Hillary Clinton in important swing states of Colorado and Virginia and not far behind in Iowa. His PAC has already been building a strong framework on the ground in New Hampshire and Iowa as well. But this next election is not going to resemble anything close to the past two. Young disenfranchised voters have already trashed their Shepard Fairey posters and abandoned Barack Obama. They are looking elsewhere for hope but have hesitancy turning toward a traditional GOP whom they believe loves Fox News and hates gays. Almost no demographic has been hit harder by Obama’s economics than African-Americans whose frustration can be seen bubbling over in communities like Ferguson, Missouri. How many of them show up to vote for Miss Daisy is questionable considering her campaign is shaping up to look like the executive chapter of the Alpha Betas. Paul was the only one paying attention to a movement happening in hashtags and livestreams enough to visit Ferguson in October and meet with community leaders to hear them out.
Despite these demographic tides shifting, the next campaign will be fought online with data as much as on the ground and in debates.
The next Presidential election is shaping up to be one massive online campaign, unlike what was seen in 2012. Hillary Clinton has already amassed Barack Obama’s digital team to begin laying the framework for the largest online recruitment of voters in history, both in mining data and messaging. Hillary’s goal is to say as little as possible to as few members of network and web media as possible. Obama’s digital team has this game figured out while it has always felt GOP candidates were one or two steps behind the conversation that was happening. The GOP is going to have to siphon to grow, not simply show up. The problem facing Obama’s former team this time however is simple reality. Hillary Clinton is not new. Hillary Clinton is not young. She’s not cool. She can’t be sold like a brand to millennial voters and thus far any attempts have made her look like Voldemort trying to give Draco Malfoy a hug.
There is an enormous opportunity here. A generational opportunity for the right, and thus far only Rand Paul can be seen attempting to get dirty and chip away at a part of culture that we interact with every day, but has somehow gone ignored by traditional party strategists. Online engagement, including trolling tactics that Paul has employed using Google and social media, are no longer fads. They are imperatives. College voters are going to be listening to candidates who are engaged on platforms they are and who understand their sense of humor.
Earlier this week, Pinterest removed a Paul sponsored Valentine’s Day parody page of Hillary Clinton due to breach of their Terms of Service, despite Pinterest allowing a Marco Rubio parody page to stay up. The boards featured memes poking at Hillary Clinton on everything from Benghazi to socialism and even tied her fake war stories to disgraced anchor Brian Williams. Did his team know the page would be taken down? Maybe, maybe not and the page being removed is completely beside the point. Removing the page probably generated more interest in the stunt but the point, like all trolling, was the stunt itself. The story appeared on websites outside the political box including Verge, Digg and Uproxx while the Washington Post and other established political websites were incredulous that a Republican is adopting Daily Show spit balling tactics. It also made online readers aware of another fact – 67 year old Hillary Clinton is not on Pinterest.
Nor is she on Snapchat, another young popular social media platform, where Paul gave an interview last month.
Whenever Paul’s twitter account sends a tweet or meme referring to Hillary Clinton, the hashtag #HillarysWar is attached, instantly tying her to the Obama Administration’s failures in Libya while she served as his Secretary of State and championed far more than a torched consulate in Benghazi. Libya has become what has described by foreign analysts as Mad Max. No rules. No government and no hope.
When Mitt Romney was kicking the tires on another possible run and met privately with Jeb Bush, Paul inserted himself into the conversation using Twitter. When it became obvious that Romney was not running, but Jeb was ramping up, Paul released a fake phone call between Jeb and Hillary, parodying the close relationship between the two. These antics alone don’t win elections, but it raises Paul’s brand and makes him the buzzing fly around the heads of his opponents. Trolling isn’t exclusively limited to social media whoopee cushions. It can be about simply pulling up a chair at a table Democrats and media don’t think he belongs at. On top of engaging in pure ridicule of Grandma, Christie and Bush, Paul ran a “Liberty Football” campaign over Super Bowl Sunday. Over Christmas he took to Twitter to air his Festivus grievances.
Any current traditionalist thinker or strategist berating this kind of behavior or shrugging it off as juvenile or unbecoming of a Presidential candidate hasn’t been paying attention to what’s happening in culture for the past six years, or how Barack Obama beat them – Twice. No one is asking GOP candidates to start prancing around like an idiot with a selfie stick, but there are ways of engaging online audiences that majority of would be candidates are passing up or when they do, it comes off like Randy Marsh playing Guitar Hero. The use of humor, trolling and memes translates into the ability to speak to voters offline. Online outreach allows candidates to enter hostile territory.
None of this is an endorsement of Rand Paul as much as it is an endorsement to the tactics being used. Being the candidate of internet counter culture doesn’t save Paul when he fumbles all over himself trying to answer simple questions about vaccinations. As loyal a voting base as his kooky dad has, Paul would be better off searching for a nice chunk of real estate in Iqaluit, Nunavut to stash him away at. There are questions about his strength on foreign policy, Iran in particular where Paul immediately loses support to other candidates-to-be like Marco Rubio who is far more polished on the subject.
But the funny thing about policy is you can’t implement it unless you get enough votes to win elections.
If those on the right don’t want Paul’s questionable philosophies on foreign engagement with Cuba and Iran to become White House policy, they should start asking what their candidate of choice is doing to engage audiences that can become allies and voters for a generation. Online persona is power and there are personalities in both entertainment and policy that have been propelled almost exclusively because of it. Cory Booker’s social media outreach is a large reason he made it to the US Senate and onto the short list of probable Hillary VP candidates, despite a horrible track record of dealing with poverty and crime as mayor and rash of unexplained imaginary friends. Barack Obama was able to organize voters in 2008 in a way not seen before using Facebook and Twitter. By the time John McCain figured out how to use those damn buttons, it was too late. Mitt Romney engaged young voters online, but refused to visit them on college campuses.
The party of youth with a 70 year old nominee at the helm suddenly becomes very, very old and no Buzzfeed listicle or Vox powerpoint presentation can fix that. Paul’s social media team has demonstrated the ability to make Obama’s former digital team look old and outdated as well. A young fledgling Internet culture suddenly finding themselves without A Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert and not ready to give up their misguided sense of belief in political heroes are going to turn to somebody and it’s not going to just be whomever gives the best speech about morning in America. Those days are over. We exist in a popular culture that is dominated by the tweet or the meme and Paul is the only would-be-candidate thus far who understands that. Deal with it.
– SM –