By Alexandra Jaffe - 05/09/13 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is taking a page from President Obama’s reelection playbook for his own campaign — embracing Internet memes, data mining and cinematic storytelling.
“They set the gold standard for digital engagement in 2012,” Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, said of the Obama team.
McConnell’s effort is born out of political necessity.
The Senate minority leader, who is seeking a sixth term in 2014, is saddled by low approval ratings that rank him as one of the country’s least popular senators.
He has faced persistent rumors of a GOP primary challenge, though no serious challenger has emerged on the right.
Democrats are trying to recruit Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, viewed as the party’s best hope to unseat McConnell.
Facing possible threats from the left and right, Benton said that Josh Holmes, McConnell’s chief of staff, hatched the idea to launch a presidential-level campaign.
The idea was “leave no stone unturned” in the way the Senate minority leader runs going into 2014, Benton said.
Seeking to counter his opponents’ portrayal of him as a ruthless politician and symbol of Washington’s dysfunction, McConnell has sought to soften his image through social media.
The most recent example came after Obama targeted McConnell as unlikable at last month’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, suggesting he couldn’t stand the idea of sharing a drink with the Republican leader.
The senator later tweeted out a picture of himself enjoying a drink with an empty chair at a Kentucky bar.
“Greetings from coal country!” it said.
The message sparked an Internet meme, with other McConnell supporters tweeting out photos of themselves drinking with an “invisible” Obama, using the hashtag #ObamaDrink.
At last weekend’s Kentucky Derby, the campaign tweeted out a photo of a smiling McConnell and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, with mint juleps and an empty chair.
The text read: “Mr. President we’re still waiting ...”
The photos were collected on short-form blogging site Tumblr — a move that reflects the sensibilities of the fast-moving Obama campaign, which attempted to launch a viral response during nearly every campaign stop or debate in 2012.
The McConnell campaign’s embrace of memes is being paired with more traditional ads meant to tie the senator to Kentucky’s storied history and culture.
One Web ad, released to coincide with the Kentucky Derby, features McConnell opining on the race’s historical significance.
“If you listen closely, you can hear the story of Kentucky in the thunder of their hooves,” he says of the Derby thoroughbreds.
The ad was tied via geo-location to websites and phone apps near the Derby.
Lucas Baiano, a political advertising director who worked with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in their presidential campaigns, was brought on to develop the ads.
McConnell is facing an electorate dissatisfied with government and unhappy with the candidate himself.
The most recent Democratic poll of the race, from Public Policy Polling, showed 36 percent of Kentuckians approve of McConnell’s job performance. Obama has 35 percent approval in the state.
A poll from Republican firm Harper Polling found 46 percent of Kentuckians view McConnell unfavorably, while 44 percent view him favorably.
“Very few people like Mitch McConnell, but they have a lot of respect and regard for him,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“With those [campaign] videos, he’s trying to associate himself with Kentuckians’ pride in their state … If they see him as the avatar for Kentucky, that may generate a subconscious feeling of regard.”
The McConnell 2014 strategy is aimed, at least in part, to present the 71-year-old senator as likable and somewhat hip.
Earlier this year, McConnell’s campaign released a video of young volunteers doing the “Harlem Shake” at Churchill Downs. It featured a dancing man holding a cutout of McConnell’s face with the people in the background holding U.S. flags.
Cross said that McConnell faces a tougher reelection than in previous years partly because he can no longer run on his status as a “powerful senator” securing earmarks for Kentucky.
“He also has to be very careful about talking about his position in [Senate] leadership,” Cross said. “Congress hasn’t been working, and a lot of people blame McConnell for that.”
As he works to refashion his image, McConnell is building a sophisticated data operation aimed at identifying as many friendly voters as possible.
Built by Republican tech innovators to collect and parse voter data in real time, the system is intended to turn out the GOP base.
It will also target persuadable voters — in a way previously unavailable to most candidates — similar to how Obama increased his margin of victory in some states in 2012 by boosting turnout among the Democratic base.
Teddy Goff, who was digital director for Obama campaign, applauded McConnell’s effort to emulate the president’s reelection strategy.
“That’s what they should be doing. Their supporters deserve the best campaign they can get,” he told The Hill.
As much as McConnell’s repurposing of Obama’s strategies will help him, it could also serve as a model for other GOP campaigns in 2014 and beyond.
A Republican post-mortem of the 2012 election highlighted the GOP’s need for better outreach to young people and found the party’s digital and data efforts lacking.
Being so committed to engaging in the digital space is newer to ... the Republican side of things, Benton said.
However, Goff cautioned that McConnell faces potential pitfalls.
He said politicians “can’t fake” the emotional appeal harnessed by memes and other informal Internet communication, which he noted is the key to the strategy.
“Simply putting a funny tagline on a little meme and hoping it goes viral is not a way to win votes or win loyalty if that concept doesn’t connect back to something that’s real,” he said.
“If they are sort of using the language of memes, but the spirit of what that sort of relationship is about isn’t there, I think people are going to see it as phony.”