6th District candidates rely on technology for tight race
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The campaigns of Republican incumbent Rep. Michele Bachmann and Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark in the 6th Congressional District are blazing trails in their efforts to reach voters, combining cutting-edge technology with time-tested political strategies to gain the upper hand in the most expensive U.S. House race in Minnesota history.
If you own a cell phone, have any interest in politics and happened to attend the State Fair, you were probably among a few thousand people to receive a Minnesota first - a cell phone ad aimed at a group of people who happened to be at a certain place at a certain time.
The credit - or blame, depending on your perspective - for this hyper-targeted advertising goes to Bachmann, who produced an ad accusing Clark of wanting to raise taxes on fair food and then beamed it to anyone within a mile radius of the Fairgrounds.
"I think what Bachmann did is one of the most innovative uses so far" of mobile phone advertising, said Andrew Roos, political ad strategist for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, which sold Bachmann the ad.
Roos said mobile phone ads are all the rage in politics, with hundreds of campaigns across the country deploying them.
A key factor is that one in five people now own GPS-equipped smartphones, which can receive location-based advertising for their willing users. During the 2008 election cycle, that number was 1 in 10, Roos said.
"You have to bring your message to where people are living their lives," Roos said.
And while that kind of technology could be used to target a particular demographic - it's a short leap to see how candidates could reach soccer moms and hockey dads at, well, soccer and hockey games - Bachmann's campaign said that wasn't the intent at the State Fair.
"There's just as many older people now that use e-mail and computers," Bachmann spokesman Sergio Gor said. "It's becoming so common that you really need to take it seriously. That's our electorate."
But that ad also gave Clark a chance to demonstrate her technological chops. Slamming Bachmann for using an actor portraying a character named "Jim" to narrate a series of ads - including the State Fair piece - Clark produced her own series of ads using "Real Jims": six voters in the district whose actual names are Jim.
The Bachmann ad also led to controversy as Bachmann's criticism was based on Clark's state Senate support of the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, something news reports at the time noted Bachmann also favored. Bachmann's campaign denies that she did.
The constitutional amendment, later approved by Minnesota voters, raised the state's sales tax - including on State Fair food.
Clark's "RealJims" ad was posted on YouTube and was a clever way to generate buzz. It also demonstrated the Clark campaign's efforts to close the fundraising gap with Bachmann (she has vastly outstripped Clark when it comes to raising cash) using, literally, cheap tricks: the cost of producing an online ad is a fraction of what it costs to put it on TV.
"We think we can out-idea and out-creative her," said Carrie Lucking, a spokeswoman for Clark.
The "real Jims" gambit helped Clark get valuable media coverage, with the Jims being interviewed by local and national media. (One of the Jims even makes appearances for the campaign now, most recently at Scandia's Taco Daze.)
That coverage helped fuel a fundraising drive to raise money to put the ad on TV. Much like an earlier effort related to controversial Bachmann comments on BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it worked: the ad eventually appeared on TV.
Both candidates also make use of social media, with Bachmann long having been credited with being an early adopter of Twitter.
Both candidates used Twitter and Facebook to aid their final fundraising drives. The numbers won't be released until mid-October, but so far the pair have raised about $7 million, with Bachmann holding a nearly 2-1 fundraising advantage.
The real Jims also formed the basis of another technological volley from Clark - a third sarcastic website aimed at Bachmann, this one called BachmannsFakeJim.com. The two predecessors were BachmannSaidWhat.com and MyTenGrandPhoto.com, the latter a reference to the price of a photo with Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at a joint fundraiser in April.
"Sometimes campaigns get caught up in policy-speak and Washington-speak and it's important to talk to people in a way that they can hear us," Lucking said.
But the tongue-in-cheek sites also have a purpose. While you can go to BachmannsFakeJim.com and sign up to get insulted by Jim the Election Guy, by entering an e-mail address and ZIP code, viewers are also helping Clark build a database of potential voters - and donors.
Part of the point is to have fun, Lucking said.
"However, everything that we've done in terms of our online strategy has been to collect data and interact with voters," she added.
The new election strategies have not supplanted the traditional ways of reaching out to voters, both campaigns said.
"It's also important to note that TV still has such a high importance in campaigns," Gor said, while vowing that Bachmann still had a few undisclosed technological tricks up her sleeve.
And even television doesn't compare to even more old-fashioned methods, Lucking said.
"Nothing replaces direct voter contact. That's why we made 10,000 voter contacts last week alone," she said. "When it comes down to it, people want to be able to look somebody in the eye and know that they can trust them."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com