Add this to the shock and awe that surrounds the come-from-behind victory of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss, in his primary runoff: the fact that farmers can still matter in an election and that farmers and their families communicate through Facebook and other social media much more than political analysts realized.
For decades, the decline in the farm population and the accompanying loss of political power in elections has been a truism in American politics. High-speed Internet service has been slow to come to rural America, and in some areas, cell-phone service is spotty. But when Cochran narrowly lost his primary, Mississippi farmers—led by their soybean growers—sprang into action in ways that appear unprecedented.
Cochran reaped slightly fewer votes than tea-party competitor state Sen. Chris McDaniel in the primary, but neither got 50 percent of the vote, triggering a runoff. That's when a Cochran campaign consultant called Danny Murphy, a big Mississippi farmer, and asked for help getting more farmers out to vote for Cochran.
Murphy said he would do what he could, partly out of respect for Cochran's support for the farm bill and all the federal money that Cochran has brought to Mississippi, and partly out of fear of McDaniel's commitment to get the government out of everything.
Murphy, who was in Washington last week for an American Soybean Association board meeting, said in an interview that he in turn called Patrick Delaney, the Washington-based communications director for the American Soybean Association, and asked him whether he thought they could use social media to spread the word that a Cochran victory was vital for the future of Mississippi agriculture.
During the weeks between the primary and the runoff, Murphy created an organization called Farmers for Thad and got cotton, rice, peanut, catfish, and livestock producers involved while Delaney created a Facebook page that got astonishing reception.
Murphy said he was inspired to use social media partly by Barack Obama's successful use of it in his 2008 presidential campaign. He had also seen the way opponents of genetic modification and animal-welfare advocates, such as the Humane Society of the United States, have been able to use social media to dominate the conversation on those subjects. But Obama, the anti-GMO advocates, and the Humane Society have found their audience among young, urban, tech-minded liberals, while Farmers for Thad have proven that social media can also work with an older, rural Republican audience.
Murphy was already on Facebook through his wife, and in one of his early messages to the Mississippi Soybean Association board, he encouraged them to "share the message" through social media. Older farmers may not be naturally inclined to open a Facebook account, Murphy said, but "if you have grandchildren, it is a prerequisite that you have Facebook to keep up with them."
Back in Washington, Delaney did a lot of research on Cochran's impact on agricultural policy and defense of Mississippi agriculture during the debate on the farm bill, and he posted those items. In Mississippi, Murphy said, Elizabeth Jack, the wife of Mississippi Soybean Association President Jeremy Jack, posted many items as well.
Murphy learned that volume makes social media work.
"If I had imagined at the beginning we would have thought one [post] a day would have been enough, we ended up with eight or 10," he said. "Each post may not [strike] one person, but the next may strike that person." All together, there were 269 posts in 14 days.
According to statistics Delaney has kept, in the 14 days before the runoff, Farmers for Thad garnered 554 likes, with 200 of them coming in the last days of the race, and reached a total of 68,844 people over 14 days including 13,368 people on June 14 alone.
The most popular item, Delaney said, was an article in The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson about a McDaniel appearance in the Mississippi Delta, the state's prime farming area, in which he declined to commit himself to support future farm subsidies.
"We're going to make sure Mississippi's farmers have everything they need to be successful," McDaniel said at a news conference, The Clarion-Ledger reported. "We're going to make sure that industry grows along with the rest of our state's industries, as we create an environment for growth."
Asked if that growth would include federal subsidies," McDaniel said, "I've answered the question."
That post reached 15,500 people, Delaney said.
It's impossible to calculate just how important the Farmers for Thad Facebook effort was, but Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst for The Cook Political Report, said it undoubtedly contributed to exactly what Cochran needed: a higher turnout in the counties that already were inclined to support him. Murphy said the Cochran campaign also used the Farmers for Thad model for other Facebook sites in the final days of the campaign.
One factor that the soybean growers either don't know or are unwilling to talk about is how much of an impact Farmers for Thad may have had on the turnout of black voters. Most of the big farmers who belong to organized farm groups in Mississippi are white, but there are black farmers and other black rural residents in Mississippi to whom the Cochran campaign appealed for votes.
It's unclear who may capitalize on the knowledge gained from the Farmers for Thad Facebook effort. Murphy said the group will support Cochran in the election and will tell tea partiers who are threatening not to vote that a Cochran loss could mean the Republicans won't take the Senate.
Murphy, of course, says that Cochran himself deserves a lot of credit for stepping up his campaign in the runoff.
But Murphy doesn't discount the importance of the effort, and he credits Delaney's technical knowledge.
"By using social media, we were able to take our message out and get it shared in a large part of the state that we wouldn't have been to able to do on an individual basis," he said.
The success of the Farmers for Thad Facebook campaign is the biggest development in rural politics this year, and it has many lessons for the future. Farmers have always been influential members in their communities and active in politics. Through Facebook, they may regain some of the influence they have lost as agriculture has mechanized, because they can more easily communicate not only with other farmers but also with their nonfarm neighbors.
It will be interesting to see whether there are more rural Facebook surprises.
This article appears in the July 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.