Patrick Ruffini is the epitome of the new breed of political consultant. He’s a numbers wonk who swears by Microsoft Excel. He’s a tech geek who’s had his own political website since the mid-‘90s, and he writes for various big-name group blogs such as TechPresident and TownHall.com — as well as his own blog. And though he has worked for the Republican National Committee and was the webmaster for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign site, Ruffini can appreciate the successful marketing of Democrat Barack Obama.
In fact, two of Ruffini’s most notable recent successes in online media relate to Obama:
> During the Iowa caucuses, Ruffini used Facebook and blogging to loosely organize Iowa voters who could use Twitter on their mobile phones to report how their particular caucus was voting — before the official vote reached mainstream media outlets. Ruffini aggregated their reports in a special Twitter feed, and was able to see a trend toward Obama’s surprise victory before the traditional media.
> Thanks to Obama having a running count on the number of donations on his website, Ruffini was able to crowdsource the work of keeping tabs on how many donations came in for the month of February on a shared Google Spreadsheet. Later, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced she had raised $35 million in February, Ruffini was able to estimate that Obama had likely doubled her, raising $70 million for the month.
In both cases, Ruffini was not only putting his political intelligence online for all to see — instead of keeping it behind the closed doors of a campaign — but he was also using new online media techniques to gather his data. Maybe it helped that the one presidential campaign he had been working on, for Rudy Giuliani, had flamed out. Or that his own party was generally out of the spotlight now that John McCain had largely wrapped up the nomination. No matter the reason, Ruffini was opening up his work for anyone to see and emulate, an almost “open source” style of politicking.
I talked to Ruffini last week in a wide-ranging phone conversation. He spoke about how candidates can benefit from momentum generated online, but still need a compelling offline message and the potential to be a mainstream candidate to succeed. Ruffini was impressed with Obama’s text-message service that alerts backers to watch his speeches (leading to more donations), and thinks McCain should do a daily video from the campaign trail. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.
You have a long history in technology and politics. Did you have an “a-ha moment” where you saw the potential for technology helping out in politics?
Patrick Ruffini: I don’t know if it’s a single moment, but I will say that early on… looking back, I was active on the Internet in ’90s. I had a website back in November of ’95 right when the web was taking off. It was kind of a series of moments when people noticed what I was writing on my website, and they came from far-flung places. They were new people I was able to be in touch with in the world of politics. And these were people I would have never been able to talk to before. I was talking to pollsters during the ’96 election, and people would come to me and say ‘I read your website.’
Nowadays, you would call it a blog, but it wasn’t a blog yet, though it was in that spirit. People would come and read it even though they hadn’t met me, and I thought that was pretty cool.
How much time are you spending blogging, and are you working on any political campaigns now?
Ruffini: I’m working on a few House races, and a few different issues. I don’t spend as much time as I’d like blogging. I try to blog not so much about the issues I’m working on; I blog when something important of note pops up where I can add something significant to the discussion. I blog for impact rather than for volume.
Have you worked for any of the presidential candidates?
Ruffini: I worked for Rudy Guiliani last year for a specific period of time, but I haven’t worked with any of the current candidates. It’s a little bit of a relief so I can have a little bit of a sane existence.
What lessons did you learn in the 2006 election cycle, when you ran the online campaign for the RNC? What worked and what didn’t?
Ruffini: Despite it not being a very good environment for Republicans, there was a basic willingness to engage online that we were trying to tap into. The Rightroots coalition did raise over $300,000 for different candidates. People said, ‘Republicans can’t do this, they’re not active and involved enough.’ But whenever they were asked to get involved, they got involved, even in a difficult environment for Republicans.
One thing I learned is that Republicans might not be as good at asking for help, but once they ask for it, it’s usually given. There is a basic willingness regardless of your political persuasion, to do things online, whether that’s blogging or fundraising or supporting different campaigns.
So people weren’t asking for much help online?
Ruffini: That was a lesson. People in the position to rally and mobilize the community were more focused on punditry than activism. But once you even asked for that basic level of activism they gave it. There’s a lesson to be drawn from that.
One thing I’ve asked on my blog is how all the social media usage by presidential candidates has really helped them (or not) out in the real world of getting votes. What do you think? Do you see any correlation between online popularity and offline?
Ruffini: I do from a standpoint of momentum. For instance, you’re starting to see online support correlate with momentum. If the campaign has a potential for mainstream appeal, then I think there can be a correlation between all the momentum you’re getting with website traffic, with money that helps the bottom line. I would just point to this — Clinton and Obama have received roughly the same amount of votes [as of last week], maybe he’s ahead by 500,000 votes. But in web searches, he’s ahead [by a ratio of] 77 to 21. In web traffic, he’s ahead 63 to 37. That doesn’t correlate with votes but what it does correlate with is his huge upward momentum in the past couple weeks. It couldn’t have happened without people being able to come online and give the campaign record fundraising totals.
I think there’s a cautionary note with this as well. Ron Paul has gathered support online but he doesn’t have mainstream appeal, a basic story that he can sell to the American people. His candidacy was not as palatable to Americans to begin with. He had momentum and you saw rising poll numbers, but at a much lower level. Mike Huckabee is another one who had a lot of support online and had rising poll numbers, but not quite enough. You still have to be offline, you still have to have a message that is compelling. Online can be a great place to sell the story, that you’re growing and you’re on the move.
For such a long time, the Internet has been about raising money instead of getting votes. Howard Dean had the same problem in 2004. Do you think the technology is coming around to help candidates get votes, with awareness and getting out the vote with emails and text messages?
Ruffini: I don’t know if it’s the Internet that’s responsible for driving the votes as much as it is the candidates using the Internet to enhance their campaign and support levels. If you have what is basically a fringe campaign, just using the Internet is not newsworthy anymore. It’s come to be expected.
But what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama realized early on was that, despite being front-running candidates, they were still going to use the medium very extensively, they would announce candidacies and do everything they could so that they could be in a position to have it make a difference. Ultimately, it’s all about fundamentals. If a candidate doesn’t have mainstream appeal and isn’t ready for prime-time, Internet activism isn’t going to make a difference.
I’ve been hearing that Obama is spending more money geographically targeting voters with ads online. But for so long, candidates have not really spent much on paid media online. Do you see that changing?
Ruffini: I think it’s interesting because [the Obama campaign] has so much money. They probably raised more money in a month than anyone in history. So they have this extra money to throw around on the web. That’s my read on it. What will be interesting is if he can get some metrics out of that to show other campaigns that this isn’t as risky as we thought. This actually works, and is more trackable and accountable.
So I’m interested to see what comes of Obama’s spending and what the results are. Hopefully [online] can start to become a larger piece of the pie, and people will realize that TV isn’t doing as much for them anymore.
I think all the candidates, and McCain especially, do need to place a premium on tapping into the online community even if it’s not the traditionally party activists that it’s been in the past. He got elected by a different kind of coaltion, so can you get that group involved in the Republican Party even if they look a little different than the existing coalition?
What kind of advice would you give McCain about using technology?
Ruffini: I think he’s a compelling person, and the opportunity does exist for him to bring to the table in this campaign an authentic, real presence that’s not processed…I hope he does what Fred Thompson didn’t do: bring an online video approach to the campaign and not just the pre-campaign. Make a daily web video where he talks to the camera and talks about what’s on his mind. Build a community around that and do it consistently. People sometimes do this but it’s not consistent enough and it doesn’t catch on. I think it would give him a chance to demonstrate his authenticity. He’s an authentic leader, so play up those strengths on the web.
I think online video is a much more efficient use of the candidate’s time than writing these long emails that are supposedly from the candidate but aren’t really from the candidate. [Online video] is a much better use of the candidate’s time, it only takes a couple minutes. I do think it would jump-start activity for him on the web.
A lot of activity we see this election cycle is still emails, and nobody believes the candidate really had anything to do with them, but they still raise a lot of money. Imagine the response if you just sent out a video from the presidential candidate talking from the road. You could have people subscribe to that video, and build an audience around it.
Tell me about the Twitter experiment you did during the Iowa caucuses. You built this ad hoc network of people who could say how the votes were going before the media could get totals. Do you think those kinds of on-the-ground reports might be used by campaigns or the media?
Ruffini: Potentially for both. Tips of mine were picked up by different reporters or reporter/bloggers and were circulated again. It showed its effectiveness. I find interesting things on Twitter all the time, ‘here’s a phone call I got from a campaign.’ It really is a live update that blogging never could be.
I thought in the caucus situation it was unique. You had people who had information that reporters were clearly looking for. It wasn’t an election where people just went in and voted and no one knew who people had voted for. People were saying, ‘I know how my caucus is voting right now’ and that was really fascinating to see the first few reports come in. And before 7 p.m. local time, the voting was heavily for Obama, and we already knew anecdotally [that he was doing well]. Yes, you have entrance polls that can do this, but you also have these anecdotes about what’s going on.
I do think it’s making a bigger difference than blogging. Blogging revolutionized opinions, and Twitter is revolutionizing newsgathering and real citizen journalism. The crowd will know about it before the media knows about it.
How useful do you think mobile marketing and notifications are for campaigns?
Ruffini: It’s one of those things that’s been very experimental. Obama has used it pretty effectively. He’s the only one sending out text messages on a consistent basis. What they do is the most basic use of this, it’s a signaling mechanism to their supporters, maybe the younger audience. Before they can draft an email and get it out, they send a text message relatively quickly because it still takes an hour or two to get an email out the door, but you can send a text message in five minutes. What they do is say, ‘Turn on your TV and watch, he’s getting ready to speak live.’ If you have enough people do that…they usually give money during the speech.
It’s something where you can drive activity outside the traditional window of having an email go out after an event is finished. When I was tracking Obama’s donations online, on the night of the Wisconsin primary, he raised $1 million during his speech. That’s kind of an estimate, but he picked up 10,000 donors and I wondered how much of that was text-driven. Certainly a lot of people were going to watch the speech anyway, but you can use text to drive activity from the right people.
I think they’ve done state-specific texts, which is pretty cool. We do know that people respond to texts and sign up for texts at a pretty high rate if given the opportunity.
What do you think? How important a role is technology playing in the elections this year? Do you like reading blogs from political consultants and do they give you an insider view you didn’t have before? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo of Patrick Ruffini by Robert Bluey via Flickr.