While Ed Gillespie may have conceded in Virginia’s Senate race, he certainly gave incumbent Democrat Mark Warner a run for his money. Despite trailing at least seven points behind in the polls, on election night Gillespie ended up being only around 16,000 votes behind Warner, less than one percent. While Gillespie’s success was in part due to national sentiment favoring Republicans this year, he also ran one hell of a campaign, with a heavy focus on using digital strategies to target voters and win votes.
Overall Gillespie spent $5.9 million on his campaign, $500,000 of which went directly toward digital strategy. The 29-year-old Eric Wilson, who served as the campaign’s digital director, was the brain behind most of their buzzy digital strategies, including a popular video of Gillespie reading mean tweets about himself which gained over 26,000 views on Facebook. Wilson also oversaw the buying of digital ads and the strategy for online fundraising.
Here’s a look at three unique areas in which Gillespie’s digital strategy made a major impact, as first reported by Darren Samuelsohn of POLITICO.
1. Facebook targeting of Buffalo Wild Wings Republicans.
Gillespie’s campaign used the digital consulting firm Engage to create an internal Facebook app, building an algorithm to find potential supporter that haven’t necessarily “liked” a political page, by mining other business and people users may have “liked.”
For example, Gillespie’s camp found out that the restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings was the second most common shared “like” among conservative leaning independents in Virginia. So Gillespie made an appearance at Wild Wings, and posted a photo of himself sitting in the establishment to Facebook. His campaign then spent $100 for a targeted Facebook promotion, ensuring it showed up at the top of the newsfeed for 25,000 Virginians who were fans of the restaurant.
2. Having Twitter surrogates tweet out the campaign’s message.
Gillespie’s campaign made a point to pre-craft tweets to respond to any number of things Warner could criticize the Republican on. This way, whenever Warner or his campaign said anything, Gillespie’s campaign could immediately fire back on Twitter.
Popular Republicans in the state such as state Senator Mark Obenshain, Representative Bob Goodlatte and former Marriott CEO Fred Malek were also recruited to blast tweets from their own Twitter accounts praising Gillespie’s performance in the debates, which contributed to #VaSenDebate becoming the top trending hashtag in the Virginia and Washington markets.
Twitter was used constantly as a first line of defense for the campaign, and even on election day Gillespie was able to make a splash in encouraging voters to turn out, by highlighting how close the race was expected to be according to the exit polls.
— Ed Gillespie (@EdWGillespie) November 4, 2014
3. Developing a mobile app for targeted canvassing.
Gillespie’s campaign built out a mobile app called Advantage, which drew on the RNC’s massive database of Republican leaning and undecided voters. Built by the Arlington-based firm Advantage Inc., Republicans paid $3,000 a month to use the app in order to more efficiently reach out to potential voters, skipping Democratic households and focusing on building report with independent voters.
Earlier on in the campaign, Gillespie’s team used another app called Ground Control to track their support among Virginia’s 2,600 delegates for the Republican primary. The app allowed the campaign to carefully track which delegates they needed to lobby hard, and which would be undecided until the last minute. This technology was above and beyond anything Gillespie’s primary challengers had, and directly contributed to his winning of the nomination.