NEW YORK CITY-Ashok Chandra is easy to compare to another prominent politician. He's young-just turned 30-and his race and place are too eclectic to pin: one-fourth Spanish, one-fourth Filipino, native to New York but grew up in Texas. He's handsome-dressed in sharp jeans, a button-up shirt and a tie-but he has a nerdy vibe that grows stronger when he talks about one thing he loves about campaigning for New York City Council: "data mining."
As Cyrus Krohn, former online director for the Republican National Committee (RNC) put it, Democrats "dot bombed" the GOP in 2006 and 2008. But while older Republicans are fretting about the social networking cavern that Obama activists dug, young GOP candidates are easily leaping that gulf, manipulating new technologies to broaden their base and run their campaigns.
I first learned about two young politicians' campaigns not through the news or fliers but on Facebook. In June, one of the New York Tax Day Tea Party coordinators sent a Facebook message to everyone who attended, telling us about the next one and adding that we should support a new candidate for City Council: a "young, intelligent Indian-American" who was also "a lot of fun . . . a rock music addict, and out to look after the average New Yorker's tax dollars." Not your typical endorsement, but it directed a young, actively conservative group to Chandra's Facebook page and recruited his first volunteers.
That closely focused recruitment has continued. Chandra's "director of quantitative research" slices the raw data of GOP voters and creates a map to focus Chandra's efforts on active Republicans. Instead of sending a mailing to every voter and getting 15 percent back, the campaign is sifting the data to target people who have voted in the last election and primary. Campaign workers are modifying a computer program to help them figure out how old voters are, how often they've voted, when they're likely to be at home (working around gym time and happy hour for young voters) and they're sending out volunteers to make physical contact.
Now that cell phones have eclipsed land-line use, the traditional cold calling method often gets the reply, "He died three years ago." So Chandra connects in person and through Facebook instead, friending everyone he meets and using his page to post campaign news and pictures that style his campaign as young and fun: Chandra being interviewed by CNN, Chandra talking to people at Hindu Unity Day in Queens, and Chandra hanging out with volunteers after campaign days. This is not the microscopically airbrushed campaign literature you usually see. (Look for blinks and beer bottles.)
Chandra eschews YouTube, saying the videos are too long: "We live in a 140-character-or-less generation. No one wants to spend a minute to figure it out." Instead, he uses Twitter to keep his campaign website constantly changing so people want to go back. It works: "Someone signs our petition and says, 'Oh my friend is following your Twitter.'"
Another young candidate, Hans Zeiger, 24, has already authored two books and tucked away a Newsweek sketch naming him religious leader among the "15 College Students You Haven't Heard Of . . . But Will." So a run for state representative in Puyallup, Wash., seems predictable. I also learned about his campaign first on Facebook, before his campaign website even existed. Zeiger is proof that the internet has its hazards-there is Facebook-photo proof of him groping a dead pig swathed in foil at a college pig roast-but he uses Facebook more helpfully to create informal focus groups, asking supporters what they think of a campaign sign or using potholders as doorbell literature. He echoes a Scripture verse about a multitude of counselors and says he'll turn to politicians to find out how to run a campaign; but when it comes to finding out how voters see signs or campaign literature, "You can trust the judgment of any old contacts in your Rolodex." Or in 2009, any of the 1,491 people on his Facebook friend list.
Zeiger, with his hundreds of columns written as a teenager, is more googleable than Chandra-a good or bad thing, depending on whether you want future voters to know your teenage self that intimately. Like Chandra, Zeiger spurns YouTube, pointing to President Obama as a political model who was "able to keep the dignity of being a political leader without . . . lowering himself into certain internet fads." Other candidates seemed like they were pandering to the young, said Zeiger: "You want your president to be someone who gets up at a lectern and delivers stirring rhetoric, not someone who just sits in front of a camera on YouTube and pontificates about whatever's on his or her mind."
When Zeiger is listening he can melt into a room's background, but when he gets up at a lectern and starts to rumble about his favorite theme-a generation that will change America, and not in the way you heard "change" last year-he commands attention. When he shared the commencement stage with Mitt Romney as student president of Hillsdale College, the biased campus buzz was that they'd rather vote for Zeiger. He presses his friends to run for office too, noting that his own legislative district elected a 24-year-old in 1972, a 22-year-old in 1988 (Randy Tate, who Zeiger said "doorbelled the whole district, got bit by dogs, wore out four pairs of shoes" and then went on to Congress and the Christian Coalition), and appointed a 23-year-old in 1996.
Republicans over 30 may not be as doddering as people think, however. When it comes to online networking, of course the digital generation will find it effortless, said Chuck DeFeo, a political consultant specializing in media and web whose stints have included Townhall.com and The Washington Times: But "It's not about 'getting it.' It is first just getting that it's a priority"-and older Republicans are getting that much. Candidates used to wait months into the campaign cycle to contact digital media consultants; now, they're calling as soon as they put together a team.
DeFeo has helped campaigns like JoinPatientsFirst.com combine online petitions with a bus tour and grassroots rallies at healthcare town halls: "The internet and the social web is a reflection of the personal connections that we have offline. . . . That synergy between the social web and socializing offline-I'm seeing it's real, it's vibrant, and it's true grassroots activism from the bottom up."
So will this mean survival of the hippest? "The internet has leveled the playing field for new candidates who want to reinvigorate the party," explains Katie Manzi, Chandra's 23-year-old director of communications. We are sitting at a local sports bar filled with more Facebook-drawn young Republicans than I have ever met in a single room in New York City. Chandra's young wife has shown me an iPhone video of their 2-year-old and we've talked iPhone apps-purchases she says Chandra takes care of.
The internet helps young politicians cut costs and reach a group outside mainstream GOP politics, like Chandra's Independent and Libertarian volunteers, Manzi says. Now politicians only need a name and not a mailing list to connect with likeminded people on Facebook.
"Republicans blame the media, and you can do that to a degree," says Manzi. "But at some point you have to take responsibility for your messaging."