Local Candidates Go Digital and Social
By Autumn Caviness for KUT News and ReportingTexas.com
The Austin city elections are coming up next month, and with campaign donation restrictions limiting the money candidates have to advertise, they are turning to free media.
When Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell kicked off his re-election campaign, his campaign posted a video showing the mayor taking a day off from work, like in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It was a cute and fun way to launch a re-election bid. The two-minute video was posted to YouTube, and within a few days it had over 10,000 views.
“That video is not something that we would have paid to put on TV, but we can make the video, and put it on YouTube, and get 10,000 people,” said Joe Deshotel, Leffingwell’s political director.
That’s one example of how Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could play sizable roles in the Austin mayoral and City Council election May 12. Social media can help politicians connect directly to voters. It allows them to personally respond to voter feedback.
And perhaps most importantly in an election that limits individual campaign donations to $350, it costs little or nothing.
“If you got $10,000 to spend on your City Council race, social media will be a very powerful ally,” said Josh Berthume, founder of Swash Labs, a digital media advertising company.
Berthume says social media has become a key to winning a presidential campaign. But the same is true at the other end of the spectrum, in municipal races.
“What social media allows a campaign manager to do is take that money and rather than say, I got $5,000 and I can spend it on a direct mail piece, or I can, at the City Council level, I can dump a lot of this at a target demographic,” he said. “I can target it at my district where I’m running. And I can try to raise my profile.”
Austin mayoral candidate Clay Dafoe plans on using this kind of targeted advertising in his own campaign. And not just because it’s cheap.
“People these days are very busy with their schedules, and it’s hard to peruse over every single community publication, every single newspaper,” Dafoe said.
And even every issue that voters find important.
Sam Kooiker certainly thinks social media turned his political fortunes around. Kooiker is the mayor of Rapid City, S.D. He took office after winning a runoff election last year against a two-term incumbent by less than 500 votes.
Kooiker credits his victory to Facebook.
“In a race that close there are a lot of things that could be credited for the difference, but elections are won in the hearts of people,” Kooiker said. “And what Facebook allowed me to do is connect directly with people.”
His Facebook ad strategy was simple: Target specific demographics, based on age and selected Facebook interests. The website also provided him with tools to gauge reaction to his ads and get instant feedback.
“We ran an ad targeting firefighters,” he said. “We had had a very difficult dispute here that my opponent had had with the firefighters, so I ran a targeted Facebook ad to people who liked firefighters in various ways in Facebook.”
Did Facebook deliver the upset win? Maybe, maybe not. But in a close election every vote counts. Which makes the use of social media no longer simply a campaign luxury.
“We’re constantly hearing from people, do you have a Facebook page, a Twitter?” said Vanessa Crook, social media director for Austin mayoral candidate Brigid Shea. “And then we connect with them. I think part of it is the public assumes that it is a part of a campaign now.”
And given the city’s historically low turnout, even the smallest maneuver can win or lose enough votes to affect the outcome.