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.
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.
Additionally, we used our endorsements as key words for Google search ads. For example, we raised $4,180 on Sarah Palin keywords, and only spent $43.96 on these ads. Often underutilized on campaigns, we found search advertising incredibly effective. Even Bing and Yahoo, which only represent 35 percent of online searches, produced a positive return.
Between July 26 and July 31, we spent $365 on Bing and Yahoo advertising and raised $3,525 of of those ads. This was roughly a 10 to 1 return. It shows how successful the ROI on online advertising can be when ads are part of a rapid response strategy. We also used ads to rebut attacks coming from the Dewhurst campaign and his Super PAC allies.
We ran uniquely branded search ads when someone searched “Cruz China” and other attacks that would lead people to a “get the facts” page on the main Cruz site. Online advertising wasn’t used merely as a rapid response mechanism but proactively to promote opposition websites like Dewbious.com. Ads were placed contextually through the Google Display Network on articles mentioning Dewhurst’s name.
Organic support for Ted on Facebook and Twitter was supplemented with ads on both sites. On Election Day, we ran a promoted post advertisement to our fans and fans of our endorsements and received 793,432 impressions, 1,136 clicks, 1,880 likes and 1,098 shares. This way, if our content wasn’t organically showing up on voters’ news feeds, we made our way onto their screen with ads reminding them to go vote.
Throughout the day new “promoted tweets” ads went up to people following Ted on Twitter encouraging them to vote and counting down the hours until voting closed.
Cruz campaign manager John Drogin had the idea to build a branded microsite that would empower Ted’s grassroots supporters. The concept came to fruition when we released CruzCrew.org, which invited volunteers to take on tasks and print out campaign literature. Among its features was an interactive map showcasing Ted’s support county by county across Texas. The site popularly featured a “Grassroots Spotlight” that showcased dedicated volunteers and supporters.
It linked to a Cruz Crew store, where voters could purchase t-shirts and other apparel in support of Ted. Most importantly, the site provided tools for voters to connect and spread the word with their friends easily via Twitter, Facebook and email.
By the end of July, Ted had over 33,000 unique donors, 42,000 donations under $100 and an average donation of $155.58. The campaign utilized online advertising, email fundraising and themed money bombs to successfully raise money online.
When it came to proactive fundraising asks by the campaign, email reigned as the best source of online donations. Thecampaign would plan moneybomb initiatives, sometimes weeks in advance, around notable end-of-quarter deadlines or holidays. Often a branded theme would accompany the money bomb:
“Help launch the Cruz missile” or “Light the torch of liberty!” These microfundraising initiatives would have their own set of branded graphics for ads, the website and emails to ensure that everything was uniform when it came to the visuals. Surprisingly, Facebook and Twitter also raised some money but paled in comparison to money raised via email.
Talk radio listeners were another good fundraising source. During interviews, Ted would push listeners to his website, and the campaign would meet them there with a uniquely branded landing page welcoming listeners of whatever radio show he was on. The money rolled in immediately following his on air requests. This melding of traditional media and new media was important to online fundraising success.
What Does It All Mean?
Virtually every study done on the consumption of mass media by voters still shows the dominance of television. There’s no doubt that TV ads have an impact on persuading voters and moving the needle in public opinion polls. That said, even in a state as big as Texas, talking one on one to voters and utilizing the web as a means to harness support proved incredibly effective.
There’s no doubt where people are spending their time online: Facebook. The average Facebook user spends more than eight hours a month on the social network, and the Cruz campaign wanted to make sure if a voter was on Facebook, they were interacting with us.
On the day of the July 31 runoff, the Cruz campaign outperformed the Dewhurst campaign on social media. In total, the Cruz campaign tweeted 151 times, whereas the Dewhurst campaign tweeted only 11 times. Sixteen of our tweets encouraged voters to head out to the polls, but 135 of those focused on interacting directly with voters. Our effort to interact with voters on Twitter resulted in 2,144 people retweeting us that day, where Dewhurst was only retweeted 64 times.
The campaign’s social media efforts didn’t end there. The Cruz campaign Facebook page was updated 11 times that day, with a total of 2,646 shares and 14,253 likes on our posts. The Dewhurst campaign updated its Facebook page just once, with a measly 49 shares and 392 likes. Additionally, we provided voters with tools to promote our campaign, such as FacebookTimeline covers and profile pictures that touted our #ChooseCruz hashtag.
Make no mistake about it: Ted Cruz’s natural ability to drum up grassroots support and convey the conservative philosophy is what won him the election. Digital simply served as a way to productively channel the energy into Facebook shares, earned media, donations and eventually votes. Every campaign could benefit from a strong digital presence—one that doesn’t simply talk at potential voters but that has a productive conversation with them.
Vincent Harris is CEO of Harris Media, a digital communications and marketing firm. He ran digital communications for the 2012 campaigns of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.