WASHINGTON - When former Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his presidential exploratory committee via a Facebook message, he was the first ever to do so on the social networking site.
That was just the beginning of Pawlenty's online roll-out.
His committee website lets supporters earn points and badges, like the mobile app Foursquare, for completing tasks such as recruiting friends and declaring support via Facebook. Pawlenty has generated buzz for sharply produced online-only campaign videos rather than traditional TV ads.
Pawlenty's Web strategy shows that online campaigning -- once considered extraneous bells and whistles -- now ranks up there with trips to Iowa and New Hampshire for presidential hopefuls. Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and other potential 2012ers are planning online campaigns that could make President Obama's pioneering 2008 campaign look like something out of the era of America Online and 56k modems.
The 2012 campaign wars will be waged in ways that were unimaginable in the last presidential race. From the rise of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to the use of "geo-targeting" through mobile phones and search engines, 2012 presidential candidates have powerful tools to track down supporters and keep them engaged.
"It's easy to forget that when the 2008 presidential was getting started, Facebook and Twitter were barely a factor," said Mindy Finn, Pawlenty's new media adviser. "The big shift that's occurred since then is the growth of participation on social networking sites ... half of Americans are on Facebook."
Search and social networking websites like Google have responded by staffing politics teams in Washington. Facebook recently hired a second person for the 2012 campaign.
But online campaigning isn't all fun and games. Relying on social networks like Facebook and Twitter cedes some control of the message, as commenters have free rein to attack and criticize. And technical snafus can become a public embarrassment, as Bachmann found out last month when a Facebook town hall event suffered technical difficulties.
Still, the last two presidential elections have each pushed the bar higher for online campaigning. In 2004 it was Howard Dean's online fundraising; in 2008 Obama's online organizing and use of text messages.
The Pawlenty campaign hopes it can make its mark on 2012.
"Facebook and Twitter will play a significant role in 2012, and I think Governor Pawlenty has embraced that technology more than anybody," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant.
The president's reelection announcement on Monday -- which came via YouTube -- provided a window into how the Web will be used for rapid response. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lobbed his attack via Twitter, saying: "@barackobama I look forward to hearing details on your jobs plan, as are 14m unemployed Americans."
Pawlenty had his own video response ready, which begins with lightning striking outside the White House and Pawlenty narrating: "How can America win the future when we're losing the present?"
Pawlenty's Web videos, which look like Michael Bay-style movie trailers, with quick cuts and soaring music, are produced by 22-year-old Lucas Baiano, a former Hillary Clinton supporter who worked for the Republican Governors Association in 2010. The videos have attracted attention from pundits for addressing one of Pawlenty's biggest knocks in the GOP presidential primary: that he's too boring.
Won't replace shaking hands
Slick Web videos and Twitter accounts will play a role in the 2012 race, but they still won't replace the on-the-ground retail politicking that's essential in early primary and caucus states like New Hampshire and Iowa. Nor will they replace the high-dollar fundraisers that can measure a candidate's viability.
"The things that candidates have been doing for hundreds of years, having the small events and meet-and-greets, that's going to continue," Finn said.
What online campaigning will do is keep potential supporters engaged. Perhaps most important, the Web lets users take an active role in a campaign, offering direct feedback and helping recruit others.
Pawlenty's website has a feature called "Pawlenty Action" that rewards supporters for recruiting friends and posting their support for Pawlenty on Facebook. "The idea is that there's a bandwagon effect, and when you see that your friend has done something, you're more likely to do it," said Vincent Harris, a GOP digital consultant who worked for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa in 2008.
Because so many people are now on Facebook -- and spend so much time on the site -- campaigns have moved away from Obama's 2008 model creating his own social network. "The majority of people are on Facebook, so why try to reinvent the wheel?" Harris said.
Campaign at your fingertips
The other big change in 2012 is the rise of smart phones, opening up a new avenue for finding supporters: geographic-based advertising.
Bachmann, who is weighing a 2012 White House run, used this tactic in her 2010 congressional race with mobile ads on State Fairgoers' phones that accused her opponent of trying to raise taxes on fair foods.
The tactic can be just as effective in a presidential primary, where candidates could buy mobile ads in the area surrounding the August Ames Iowa Straw Poll, an important measuring stick for presidential hopefuls.
While campaigns have all sorts of tools at their fingertips to attract supporters, one of the most basic elements of the Internet remains key for fundraising: e-mail.
Eric Frenchman, a Bachmann digital strategist, said one-third of her $2.2 million in fundraising came from online donations last quarter. "Even though Twitter, Facebook and YouTube get a lot of press, direct marketing via e-mail and search still brings in the overwhelming majority of donations," he said.
For candidates like Pawlenty, who lacks the built-in national fundraising base that some 2012 rivals have, the Internet is a way to help level the playing field and tap donors nationwide without having to visit every city and town.
He still has to do the traditional things to win supporters: speeches, shaking hands, television appearances. But now Pawlenty and other upstart candidates can ask for money or get a message out across the country with the click of a mouse button -- and at a fraction of the cost of buying TV time. Said Finn: "The value of engaging online is not proportional to the amount of money spent on it."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723