Six months after Republican Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, noted Texas political pundit Paul Burka posed this question in print about a race the overwhelming majority of pundits thought was a foregone conclusion: “Is it even worth writing about?” he asked. “The only way [Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst loses is if someone with more money and better conservative credentials than he has gets into the race. And that would be ... who?” 

Despite being outspent 3 to 1, Ted Cruz went on to win a Republican primary against one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, 56 percent to 44 percent. Dewhurst was not only the heavy favorite from the start, but he was backed strongly by the Texas GOP establishment.

This case study looks to examine only one aspect of the campaign’s strategy—its digital operations. With Ted at the helm, the Cruz campaign ran an aggressive, grassroots-centric race unlike anything previously seen in Texas.

From the outset, we knew a strong digital presence was critical to Cruz’s chances because initially the campaign simply did not have the funds to compete with Dewhurst on TV. Social media allowed the campaign to motivate and coordinate grassroots supporters, which was critical for an insurgent campaign in a state as big as Texas. Most importantly, digital was baked into all aspects of the campaign from communications to political fieldwork to polling.

Ted announced his candidacy for Senate on a conference call with conservative bloggers. Texas has a large network of active conservative bloggers and giving access to them was important to promoting Ted’s conservative message and helping generate buzz about his candidacy among the party base. Ted met with bloggers in person and via phone often, and the campaign created a robust blogger action center encouraging bloggers to post supportive widgets, and created a segmented email list to update bloggers from.

Social media and the digital space were used as a tool to raise Cruz’s name ID, generate online donations and respond to attacks from the Dewhurst campaign. Additionally, Ted utilized web videos early on to break through the clutter and gain some earned media.

Paving the way for the campaign’s online success was a consulting team that completely bought in when it came to digital. General Consultant Jason Johnson and Campaign Manager John Drogin both believed that digital was an inexpensive way to help level the playing field with the wealthy Dewhurst. Josh Perry, a young conservative who had experience in digital, was brought on to manage the campaign’s day-to-day web operations. Josh understood the quick pace at which news spreads online and worked tirelessly with Drogin to respond to voters across the state. 

As the campaign progressed Jason and John reached out to me about bringing my firm into the race to supplement what Josh was doing and oversee a broader digital strategy. In the end, even another staffer, Travis McCormick, was added to the campaign’s in-house digital arm. By Election Day there were no less than three full time people working on digital, supplemented by my firm and the candidate himself. 

The buy-in from the campaign’s senior strategists allowed us to effectively meld traditional media and new throughout the race. The campaign engaged bloggers to help energize the grassroots, employed a variety of online ad strategies and supplemented our traditional fundraising with successful online efforts. 

Online Advertising

The campaign advertised across a multitude of platforms including Bing/Yahoo, Face book, Google Ad Words and Twitter. Running online ads allowed us to raise money, combat opposition attacks and gain name recognition.

Once Ted received a major endorsement—talk show host Sean Hannity or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for example—we targeted advertising on Facebook to people who “liked” those individuals’ pages. We also ran ads contextually around the name of the endorser. The goal here was to connect them to Cruz and garner donations.