Why are these men smiling?
And why does Tony Sutton, the chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, always seem to have a quip on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes? Why does Michael Brodkorb, the deputy chair, always seem to be stifling back a smile behind his otherwise steely and win-at-all-costs countenance?
And why, in this digitally-driven political age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iPhones and BlackBerries, does the GOP seem to have more fun than their political counterparts on the campaign trail?
And has the iconic Republican elephant become a party animal? Is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party donkey fundamentally more cautious, and, ultimately, less in touch with voters with short attention spans?
Or, in this world of perception becoming reality, does it just seem that way?
Aided by Mark Drake, the state Republican party’s sly opposition research guru, it sometimes seems as if Sutton, a longtime Republican operative and business owner, and Brodkorb, the one-time muckraking blogger, are the 21st century, right-wing versions of the New Left’s Yippies.
The Yippies — short for Youth International Party — were 1960s theatrical anarchists, such as Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman, who used drama and antics to gain attention for their left-wing causes. They were extreme, and they were counter-cultural.
Sutton finds himself battling Minnesota’s presumed political culture. “In this state you gotta be a little subversive if you’re a conservative,” he said. “You gotta hustle. We’re in a state that — I think wrongly — is considered a liberal state. So, just about every day we sit around and say, ‘How do we drive the message?’ “
These days, the GOP message is often pushed digitally. Before this year’s campaign, Brodkorb believed the GOP had fallen behind the Democrats nationally and locally on the social media front, particularly during the 2008 presidential campaign. Indeed, he ran for his Minnesota deputy chairmanship post on a platform of cranking up the use of such channels as Twitter.
In the Minnesota GOP’s case, so far the message has been dissing DFL candidate Mark Dayton, pushing the limits on him being “erratic.” The Minnesota GOP often deftly — even nastily — uses technology in that messaging process.
“We’re talking about his record,” protested communications director Drake. Sure.
Scene 1: Hours after Dayton won the DFL primary election, there stood Sutton at GOP headquarters in downtown St. Paul with that twinkle in his eye. Next to him stood Brodkorb, the blogger and social media expert-turned-GOP leader.
It wasn’t just the unveiling of an attack commercial claiming that Dayton’s behavior has been “bizarre” that they seemed to be enjoying, but it was Sutton’s zinging rhetoric, talking about Dayton’s “trust fund” and how Dayton’s ex-wife, Alida Rockefeller Messinger, is funding an independent expenditures committee, Alliance for a Better Minnesota. (How can Republicans bash rich people?)
In the hallway after the news conference, Sutton and Brodkorb were noticeably gleeful. With a room full of TV cameras whirling, they had demonstrated their opposition research skills, their talking-points focus and their swiftness in attacking a guy who had officially won the DFL primary just about three hours earlier.
Scene 2: A week later, Dayton conducted a news conference criticizing the GOP’s videotaping trackers.
His campaign posted a video of the allegedly disruptive trackers on its website.
As Dayton spoke — in real time — Brodkorb and Drake were sending tweets into the political atmosphere, mostly geared to media members. Drake, who attended the news conference, frantically tapped away on his smartphone.
As if by magic, Brodkorb tweeted info about Dayton as the reporters’ questions were being asked. One question mirrored a query Brodkorb posted.
Scene 3: Brodkorb, Drake and Sutton pulled a real Yippie stunt. On Day One of the State Fair, with Sutton as the Fair barker, the GOP staged “a Republican fashion show.”
T-shirts were unveiled making fun of Dayton’s call a week earlier to clearly identify trackers. The GOP shirts talked of Dayton’s poor marks as a U.S. senator and his call for higher taxes.
Rather than counter with a lighthearted response, DFL spokesman Donald McFarland, with anger in his voice, denounced l’affaire T-shirt as “a stunt,” which it was, of course, but a cute zinging one at that.
When asked about the GOP’s tone and tactics, DFL Executive Director Andy O’Leary said, “Honestly, I just think they’re meaner, and they enjoy being mean.”
When asked about the GOP’s mean-spiritedness, Sutton countered: “I guess if you’re on the receiving end, you would think that. I think we’re being pointed with our humor.”
Being quick on the uptake — be it with a tweet or a Fair event — allows candidates and parties to stir things up and react quickly. Dusty Trice,a Twin Cities-based progressive social networking consultant, admiringly praises Brodkorb for being skilled at “disaster messaging.”
“There are two sides to any disaster, and Brodkorb knows how to build it up and make it worse and worse,” Trice said, adding that the GOP deputy chair generally knows where “the line” is of pushing negativity.
For example, in the aftermath of Dayton’s tracker media conference, TV stations aired stories on their 10 p.m. news shows.
At 10:06 p.m. that night, Brodkorb tweeted that University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs used the words “odd” and “unusual” to describe Dayton’s conduct. These are key words in the GOP’s anti-Dayton messaging.
In little more than an hour, seven Brodkorb allies re-tweeted the “odd” and “unusual” notion to their combined total of about 5,000 followers.
“They set up their own echo chamber,” said Trice.
Said Brodkorb, Twitter is the “wild, wild West of politics.”
But Dana Anderson, Dayton’s campaign manager, isn’t wowed by that frontier imagery. She wonders about the value and reach of it all, and the content.
“What are they talking about when they’re tweeting or Facebooking?” she asked. “Are they talking about how the Republicans are going to fix Minnesota? Are they talking about their budget plan? Are they talking about what they’re going to do for education? All that they’re talking about is Mark Dayton, and only in negative response to anything that he’s saying.”
To those who say that Twitter allows candidates and parties to interact with voters, to mix it up, Anderson said: “Our responsibility is to get information to the voters. We need to mix it up with the voters. Mixing it up amongst five people on Twitter is not what our goal is.”
In a sense, the conservative Twitternistas are boys with keypads and wireless toys talking to each other. But they are conducting a conversation that gets blown around in the digital winds. Apparently, there is value in that.
According to state campaign finance records, Dayton paid $28,636 for a social media consultant during his primary campaign. That consultant got Dayton’s Facebook page up and running, with about 5,000 “friends” now. But during the primary campaign, for all the money he paid, Dayton didn’t post a tweet from March 21 until Aug. 14. Still, Anderson said she thinks the campaign got its money’s worth.
The state Republican Party has a full-time “new media” staffer running its social networking operation. The DFL communications staff shares that task, said O’Leary. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner’s campaign has a volunteer and an intern working on social networking and web stuff.
If one were to have put stock in social media in this gubernatorial campaign so far, one would think that the GOP was out ahead — and that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak would have been the DFL’s endorsed candidate.
With two Facebook pages that have more than 12,000 friends and with 7,747 Twitter followers, Rybak is, among DFLers, considered the social networking king.
And there’s the rub. Unlike the Minnesota GOP, which regularly rallies around a candidate and sticks with him or her, the DFL has a tendency to eat its own. Thus, Rybak was running against Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who was running against Mark Dayton, who was running against Matt Entenza. They had different messages, different followers, different Facebook friends.
“The DFL is always sniping at each other,” said consultant Trice.
The tones of the parties and the use of social media could also be a reflection of the party chairs, some say. DFL Party leader Brian Melendez is a corporate lawyer. Sutton is an entrepreneur. Sutton tweets. Melendez doesn’t. Sutton sets the GOP tone.
“Aside from being an incredible strategist and amazing tactician, Tony is also a very funny person,” said Brodkorb. “He knows this has to be fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.”
Fun anda little bit mean, or is it “pointed”?
“Whoa — it’s hotter than the inside of Mark Dayton’s car out there today,” he tweeted on Aug. 14, soon after it was reported that Dayton had left his dogs in his car.
It was re-tweeted by five people, and some of them re-tweeted it at least four times, and the echo chamber was filled with a Dayton joke.
“Fun is making Republicans excited and leaving the [State Fair] booth with a smile,” said Brodkorb. “Fun is within the bounds of acceptable political discourse.”
(Fun is the MesabiDayton Twitter account. This one bearing the name of one of Mark Dayton’s dog, he of the alleged hot car episode. The Republican Party said it knows nothing of it.)
But DFL and Dayton campaign leaders say fun doesn’t only come wirelessly. They said going door-to-door to meet voters and making 2 million phone calls to potential voters before the primary was fun, too. The ground game is about boots on doorsteps, not tweets on smartphones. Retail politics still comes down to face-to-face contact.
“I went to 110 community meetings — that’s my idea of fun,” Dayton said recently. “My idea of fun is going all over the state and meeting real people and solving real problems. That’s fun.”
For all the GOP noise, the data support the DFL and its digital outreach.
Save for Tom Emmer’s lead in Facebook friends over Dayton (7,968 to 4,998 as of Sunday night) with Horner (1,371) trailing, the DFL leads the Republicans on other sites. However, U.S.Rep. Michele Bachmann, with a national following, has lots more “friends” and Twitter followers than challenger Tarryl Clark.
The DFL Party has 3,831 Facebook friends to the GOP’s 2,955. The independent expenditure group, Alliance for a Better Minnesota, has 1,620 Twitter followers, more than any local GOP-leaning group. For his lack of tweeting in the early summer, Dayton has far more followers (2,632) than Emmer (1,857) or Horner (899). And the DFL owns a wide margin of Twitter followers (2,249) over the Minnesota GOP (1,320). But Brodkorb himself (1,724) has more followers than his own party.
“I absolutely disagree that we are behind,” said the DFL’s O’Leary, who notes that Brodkorb and his other “blogger buddies” and fellow tweeters, such as Luke Hellier and Mitch Berg are building “their own brand” while the DFL’s social networking channel is, when all is said and done, more unified.
Targeted Victory, a Republican-leaning consulting firm, tracks tweets, Facebook friends, YouTube posts and web traffic to political parties and candidates. According to its regular reports, in almost every category, DFL linked sites outdo the GOP. And the DFL in Minnesota is doing better than Democratic parties in most other states.
Counters Brodkorb: “The Democrats may have more followers, but we use it more. We use it more effectively and a couple of times a day. If you’re not using it a couple of times a day, it will get stale, and people won’t pay attention.”
A check Sunday night shows that the GOP has tweeted more than 1,500 times since starting its account; the DFL, 600 times. Brodkorb himself has posted 3,300 tweets.
In the end, of course, votes count, not stunts or T-shirts, not Facebook friends or tweets.
To the opening question, “Do Republicans have more fun?” the DFL’s O’Leary answers tartly: “How can they? We’ve got two U.S. senators, five members of Congress, massive majorities in the Legislature, two Democratic mayors, every statewide office — except the governor — and we’re gonna win this one. I don’t see how you can say they’re having a lot of fun.”
But they are having fun. The final question is this: Will it matter come November?