Farmers Used Facebook to Harvest Votes for Cochran

MADISON, MS - JUNE 24: U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) walks by the kitchen at Mama Hamil's restaurant on June 24, 2014 in Madison, Mississippi. U.S. Senate incumbent U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) is fighting for his political life in a tight race against Tea Party-backed republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Mississippi State Sen Chris McDaniel. 
National Journal
July 13, 2014, 4:26 p.m.

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.

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