President Barack Obama sent an e-mail endorsing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds to hundreds of thousands of Obama supporters in Virginia last week, the latest indication that the lessons of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign are playing out in key state races in 2009.
To boost Democrats, Obama has shown he's willing to tap the database of 14 million backers who helped him win his party's primary and defeat Republican Sen. John McCain in the general election. The vast supporter list also helped Obama bring in a record-shattering $750 million in campaign contributions.
In this year's marquee races — gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia, where Deeds goes up against Republican Bob McDonnell, and New Jersey, where Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine faces a tough challenge from Republican Chris Christie — candidates are trying to duplicate Obama's success using modern communications tools to mobilize supporters.
"Any smart campaign will take a look at everything that was done before," said Mo Elleithee, who was a strategist for Terry McAuliffe's unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial primary bid in Virginia this year. "This will be a first test of how to take the '08 strategies."
The major gubernatorial candidates in both states have taken social networking to heart. They are all using Twitter, a popular and relatively new communications tool, to send 140-character messages, known as "tweets," to their supporters. Through Twitter, Facebook and other online services, the candidates solicit donations, ask volunteers to go door to door, and make campaign announcements.
The Democrats in both states have used Twitter to humanize themselves. Deeds, a state senator, sends largely personal messages, with notes about listening to bands like The Who and Drive-By Truckers.
"A good week for Penguins/Lakers fans. Pam and I have a new nephew:). All are well," Deeds tweeted last week.
Corzine's campaign is tweeting prolifically, with several messages most days. He's sent updates on online videos, notes on his appearances and a stream of biographical details.
"FACT: Governor Corzine played Big Ten basketball at the University of Illinois as a walk-on," was one.
Corzine, who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary, has been playing up his Obama connections this year. Vice President Joe Biden appeared at a Corzine rally earlier this month, and it's widely expected the president will stump for Corzine, though nothing's been confirmed yet.
Democratic party officials also won't say whether Obama will e-mail supporters for Corzine as he did for Deeds. Obama's e-mail on Deeds' behalf came just after Virginia's Democratic primary, giving Deeds a strong start at tapping a base of Democratic contributors months before he faces McDonnell in November.
Locating supporters online
Christie, a former U.S. attorney, also tweets and has about 4,600 members of his Facebook group, a following less than half the size of Corzine's. But Christie has also found help from Corzine detractors who have declared themselves in smaller spontaneous, online groups such as "Stop Jon Corzine" and "Democrats Against Jon Corzine."
Such groups make it much easier for campaigns to locate supporters who might not be identified through phone banking, canvassing and other traditional means.
Strategists say online networking makes it easier to follow another key part of the Obama playbook: identifying voters in geographic areas not always hospitable to a candidate's political party.
Ben Dworkin, a political scientist at New Jersey's Rider University, said using the Web to find supporters in enemy territory can be even more effective in state-level races.
"You don't have to win the county," Dworkin said. "The theory is that if you can prevent the Republicans from winning a traditional Republican county by 20,000 instead of 40,000 that makes all the difference in a statewide election."
Republican tweets, uses Facebook
The Obama campaign shattered all online fundraising records in 2008, mining the Web for millions of small donors. While Republicans have been slow to adopt the technology, McDonnell, in Virginia, is taking on the challenge.
In the week before Obama's e-mail message supporting Deeds, McDonnell, a former Virginia attorney general, used Twitter, Facebook and his Web site to achieve two goals within a matter of days.
One was to boost his Facebook following to 10,000 from around 5,000. The other was to raise $40,000 in online donations. At one point, he tweeted: "A little over 10,000 to reach my goal. Can you help prove that the GOP can raise money online?"
McDonnell's campaign has also used geographically targeted text messages, such as contacting supporters who live in the Shenandoah Valley about a radio interview he was doing there.