By Autumn Caviness
For Reporting Texas and KUT News
AUSTIN — With city elections a month away and campaign donation restrictions limiting money for advertising, candidates are turning to free media.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell kicked off his re-election campaign with a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” parody video that was posted on YouTube. Within a few days, the two-minute video had more than 10,000 views.
“That video is not something that we would have paid to put on TV, but we can make the video, and put it on YouTube, and get 10,000 people,” said Joe Deshotel, Leffingwell’s political director.
That’s one example of how Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could play sizable roles in the Austin mayoral and City Council elections on May 12. Social media can help politicians connect directly to voters and, perhaps most important in an election that limits individual campaign donations to $350, costs little or nothing.
“If you’ve got $10,000 to spend on your City Council race, social media will be a very powerful ally,” said Josh Berthume, founder of Swash Labs, a digital media advertising company.
Berthume says social media plays a role not only in presidential campaigns, but also in municipal races.
“What social media allows a campaign manager to do is take that money and rather than say, I’ve got $5,000 and I can spend it on a direct mail piece, or I can, at the City Council level, I can dump a lot of this at a target demographic,” he said. “And I can try to raise my profile.”
Austin mayoral candidate Clay Dafoe plans on using this kind of targeted advertising in his own campaign. “People these days are very busy with their schedules, and it’s hard to peruse over every single community publication, every single newspaper,” he said.
Sam Kooiker credits Facebook with helping him become mayor of Rapid City, S.D. He took office last year after winning a runoff election by less than 500 votes against a two-term incumbent.
“In a race that close there are a lot of things that could be credited for the difference, but elections are won in the hearts of people,” said Kooiker (pronounced “KWAY-ker”). “And what Facebook allowed me to do is connect directly with people.”
His Facebook ad strategy was simple: Target specific demographics, based on age and selected Facebook interests. The website also provided him with tools to gauge reaction to his ads and get instant feedback.
“We ran an ad targeting firefighters,” he said. “We had had a very difficult dispute here that my opponent had had with the firefighters, so I ran a targeted Facebook ad to people who liked firefighters in various ways in Facebook.”
In a close election every vote counts, so social media can no longer be ignored.
“We’re constantly hearing from people, do you have a Facebook page, a Twitter?” said Vanessa Crook, social media director for Austin mayoral candidate Brigid Shea. “And then we connect with them. I think part of it is the public assumes that it is a part of a campaign now.”