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The New Grassroots: Social Media and the Post-Post Modern Campaign

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I'm currently consulting for a friend's political campaign, which is for a position (county supervisor) that while extremely important, is one about which constituents know next to nothing. When we had our first campaign steering committee meeting last summer, my first suggestion was to build a Facebook page. "We have to make sure young people know that Mike (McGuire) is the best candidate for the most important job they've never heard of."

Seven months, almost Facebook friends and nearly 500 Twitter followers later, we now personally understand the significance of social media to grassroots campaigns. We have used these media to coordinate dozens of well-turned out events, announce campaign related news and engage voters on issues of salience to the district.

As a kind of experiment for President Obama's National Day of Service, we hosted a coat drive for the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, which we promoted solely on Facebook and Twitter. On one of the rainest days in January, close to one hundred people drove out to our little town to drop off a total of more than 300 coats. It was extraordinary. But maybe more interesting than the fact that people have been highly mobilized by these media is the degree to which connections are being built. Quality networking through social media (and this doesn't just apply to political candidates) is about depth as well as scope. Folks showed up at the coat drive (and for that matter, many of other local events hosted by the campaign in the past four months) feeling as though they know Mike, what he's about, and that he is accessible to them. That sense of personal relationship is essential to a winning campaign, and especially one with a grassroots model of communication and outreach (as a certain POTUS can tell you).

Not all social media interaction is warm and fuzzy, but the medium still allows for a quick exchange of dialogue and information that is updated at lightening speed. The candidate who doesn't invest in building a strong social media base will feel the consequences as information goes viral in the blink of an eye. Perhaps a variation on the old adage is "A tweet can make it around the world before a press release can get its pants on."

A recent local example is the debate over progress on the SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) train, an issue of high salience to Sonoma County residents, who voted in 2008 for a tax to support a project to create a high-speed rail from southern Marin County (Larkspur) to northern Sonoma County (Cloverdale). Sonoma County voters' taxes are funding a greater portion of the project than their counterparts in Marin County and Sonoma County residents will make up a far greater percentage of eventual riders, as folks tend to commute within Sonoma County, not between Sonoma and Marin. Local media (including the Press Democrat, the largest local newspaper) reported a few weeks back that the SMART board had made a decision- due to underfunding as a result of the economic downturn- to explore a two-phase process for the rail, which, inexplicably to Sonoma County residents, would begin its construction in Marin with no clear date as for when (or even if) funding for the Sonoma phase of the project would become available. The board chair (who is a council member in a town in Sonoma County and Mike McGuire's primary rival for the Board of Supervisors) responded to a series of articles and op-eds lamenting the decision by defensively back-peddling, insisting that no decision had been made (even though a vote had been taken and is on the public record), but only that the board "had voted to explore the options." McGuire- a strong supporter of the SMART rail and of reserving Sonoma County taxes for local projects- authored a petition (co-authored, incidentally, by another SMART board member who also happens to be the mayor of Cloverdale- that "last stop" on the hypothetical train) that demanded SMART be protected in Sonoma County and that there be more transparency in the board's decision-making process.

The petition, which has been promoted solely on Facebook, Twitter, and through targeted email already has more than 1000 signatures, a figure that represents about 15% of those who received a request to sign. That positive action is about ten times what most grassroots petitions receive, and there is little doubt that the success is due to the effectiveness of the social media blitz. As McGuire and his team were sending out tweets, Facebook status updates and emails on the status of the SMART discussions and progress, the board chair was left holding the bag attempting to justify the SMART board's action (or lack thereof, according to her). But the beauty of social media in a contentious local debate such as the SMART issue is that it rewards open, frank communication and discourse and by design, discourages attempts to subvert transparency in decision-making. In a nutshell, although it may take several go-rounds and a bit of time, the trend in social media is towards revealing rather than managing the truth. So those who not only understand its power, but whose message is authentic are likely to garner the greatest benefit.

All of this is not to say that traditional forms of campaigning are obsolete. To the contrary, a quality social media campaign will work with traditional strategies to make sure that outreach finds all voters- from the most tech savvy to the quasi-luddites.

As any campaign veteran will tell you, one of a candidate's most challenging tasks is to get information out quickly and inexpensively. Traditional forms of communication (relying on press or direct mail) aren't always reliable, nor does the former necessarily frame the candidate's message in way in which it was intended. Social media gives a candidate much more control over his/her image and message and allows them - if they've created both scope and depth- to guide the narrative about themselves. The candidate unable to build this social media foundation is likely to find themselves spending much of their time and energy on the defensive, rather than constructing an effective, empowering message that resonates with, engages, and even mobilizes voters. Dozens of Mike McGuire's campaign volunteers are folks with whom he connected through his social media outreach. And that base grows hourly. Mike McGuire's social media strategy is quickly becoming a model for other local grassroots campaigns and as a big fan (and user) of these media myself, I find it exciting to watch how these new technologies will continue to translate into real-world activism and community engagement, both at the local level and beyond.

To find Mike McGuire online, you can visit his campaign website here, his Facebook page here, and his Twitter account here. And if you're in the district (Northern Sonoma County), the SMART petition is here.

Even if you're not in the district or the county, McGuire's social media team welcomes your contribution to the discussion of the role of social media in the contemporary grassroots campaign.