In the latest match-up of the establishment against the grassroots conservative base, Ted Cruz pulled off a near-stunning upset this week against Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate primary run-off.
What should be the larger story is just how Cruz managed to turn an 11 point loss in the May primary (Dewhurst failed to receive the required 50% needed to avoid a runoff) into a convincing win this week. One answer could be his effective usage of social media:
Ted Cruz announced his Senate run 18 months ago in an unconventional way emblematic of the campaign to come: on a conference call with Texas’s conservative bloggers. Then he tweeted it.
Since then, Cruz climbed from obscurity to the brink of the year’s biggest upset and, in the process, became Exhibit A of how to effectively use social media to grow a movement. He currently holds a big polling lead over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in Tuesday’s run-off for the GOP nomination.
“Ted Cruz is the Barack Obama of 2012,” said Sean Theriault, a University of Texas at Austin political scientist. “It is a great case study of using these tools in politics.”
For all the hype surrounding social media in campaigns, Cruz is among the first American examples of a dark horse candidate who rode to victory by tapping into the vast power of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and email. Whether he wins or loses Tuesday, the fact that he emerged as a serious contender — thanks largely to a foundation poured online — has even his opponents in awe.
“It was like watching a tree grow,” said Dave Jennings, a Houston-based Dewhurst backer who blogs at BigJollyPolitics.com. “You could see it work. I don’t know who was the arbiter of all those decisions, but the social media — the Facebook, all those Drudge ads, all of it — was brilliant.”
Among Cruz’s smart cyber moves: Weekly calls with supportive bloggers, who had access to the candidate throughout the race. Two full-time staffers focused on social media content, resulting in speedy responses to just about every tweet, Facebook comment and email. A microsite, cruzcrew.org, that empowered volunteers to take on tasks and print out campaign literature. The use of social media ads from the earliest days of the campaign to build a mailing list that is, in the words of Vincent Harris, the Cruz campaign digital strategist, “bigger than most of the failed Republican candidates for president.”
“This campaign was unique because digital wasn’t done to check off a box, digital led until maybe a few months ago” when fundraising made TV advertising possible, Harris said. “I was on every call. I got all the access I ever needed. I can’t recall ever getting turned down for a budget request.”
In the days prior to social media, an outsider candidate like Cruz would’ve been squashed by the establishment guy, Dewhurst. Without any traditional way to tell his story the result would’ve been ugly. Instead, he embraced new methods of grassroots outreach (much like Rubio in Florida) and the result has made a dramatic statement to the political world.