House Republicans hope to catch up to Obama on use of new-media tools

The House GOP Conference has signed a contract with a text-messaging company as Republicans race to get up to speed on new-media tools that helped President Barack Obama win the White House.

Constituent Mobile, an affiliate of the same company that ran Obama’s text messaging campaign in 2008, will help House Republicans boost relations with voters back home through text messaging.

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The contract is part of a new-media strategy implemented by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) that they hope will pay dividends in the long run.

“It’s a recognition that in ’08, President Obama was very successful in using new media, and that this is how people communicate today,” McMorris Rodgers told The Hill. She vows to get Republicans more comfortable using new-media tools.

“This is how people across the country get their information. As House Republicans, we need to be utilizing these tools too,” she said.

The deal McMorris Rodgers signed will allow constituents to text their members at a short code — a six-number combination reserved specifically for the House Republican Conference and its members, in this case 467469, spelling “GOPGOV.”

Each member will have a keyword to use, so that a constituent in McMorris Rodgers’s district will be recognized as distinct from a constituent in Boehner’s district. Members can then use the numbers they collect to blast information about an impending vote, an upcoming town hall meeting or anything else they want to share.

The conference’s goal is “to get our members just reaching more people via texting. It’s creating a following of people and making them aware of our positions, our solutions, and then also seeking their input,” McMorris Rodgers said.

The latest sign that Republicans are taking new media seriously was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s announcement that he had hired his own Internet team at the same time he rolled out his political team. Pawlenty, who is eyeing a 2012 GOP presidential nomination, hired a high-powered collection of Washington- and New Hampshire-based experts who managed online campaigns for the Republican National Committee and several prominent GOP presidential contenders in 2008.

Meanwhile, former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) has hired the same firm as the House Republican Conference to operate what has become one of the most aggressive state-level texting operations in history.

A text message hits voters within a 50-mile radius of any event McDonnell holds to boost turnout, says spokeswoman Chrystal Cameron. And this week, one lucky texter will win Redskins tickets, compliments of the campaign.

“We made a decision very early on to make new media a central part of our strategy,” Cameron said. “Our program is going to be absolutely critical in the final days before Election Day.”

Reaching voters via text message can prove much more effective than other means, according to industry figures. The number of Americans with cell phones is far greater than the number with cable television or access to the Internet. More people open text messages, too; the rate is 95 to 100 percent, according to one estimate, far above the 10 percent a successful campaign e-mail generates.

Republicans can close the technology gap with Obama by seizing on texting and other new techniques, said Mindy Finn, one of Pawlenty’s advisers and a GOP new-media consultant.

“Obama ran a smart campaign across the board, including using proven-effective new-media tools with a ripe audience ready to use them,” she said in an e-mail.

“Feeling motivated by what they see as the now-dominant Democratic Party, Republican activists are turning to the most efficient place to organize — the Web — as we’ve seen recently with the resurgence of right-leaning activism at Tea Parties across the country, even in places where the official party structure is lacking.”

Even Republicans on stodgy Capitol Hill have spent significant time and resources focusing on improving the party’s new-media team this year.

Last December, Boehner sent a memo to GOP committee staffers laying out new guidelines for their websites that included integration of YouTube, Facebook and other media; live streaming of committee proceedings; and links to members’ websites, the conference website and an e-mail signup form.

Both Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have in-house new-media advisers, the first leaders to specifically carve out a staff role.

Still, the party has a way to go before fully utilizing new-media opportunities.

“Despite authentic bottom-up, grass roots-driven campaigns being the greatest success stories of the last decade, the majority of campaigns still fear veering from the traditional model that considers new media an afterthought,” Finn said.

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