When Ted Cruz went to Washington, Josh Perry came along for the ride – literally.
Perry, now 27, was taken by the Texas Republican while a student at the University of Texas. After a stint as an intern, Perry joined Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign in the dual role of chauffeur and social media manager. Six months later, after Perry got into a fender-bender, he left the driving behind and focused on creating Cruz's social media identity.
Today, Cruz -- now a 2016 presidential hopeful -- is among the most highly engaged elected officials on social media, largely due to Perry whose skills now face the ultimate test: making his candidate stand out in a crowded presidential field.
When Cruz launched his presidential campaign in March, he turned first to Twitter – releasing a 30-second announcement video on the social networking site several hours before his formal speech at Liberty University in Virginia. He then posted the video on Facebook, where it garnered over 1 million views.
No campaign’s digital rollout has been perfect: Nearly every candidate who has thrown a hat into the 2016 ring so far has hit some speed bumps, including Cruz. Cruz’s campaign experienced an early gaffe when, on campaign launch day, reporters discovered that his team had not been able to secure the domain TedCruz.com, which had been purchased years before the Texas Republican ran for Senate in 2012. Instead, it was snagged by an Arizona attorney of the same name who used it to post a pro-Obama message.
Despite that blunder, the Cruz campaign has demonstrated an early aptitude for social media. Perry’s best advantage may be that he has long since honed and developed Cruz’s voice on social platforms, taking his grassroots, Tea Party message across Twitter and Facebook. Cruz’s Facebook page has over 1.2 million fans – more than Hillary Clinton (800,000), Marco Rubio (838,000), or Carly Fiorina (46,000). On Twitter, Cruz’s campaign account, @tedcruz, has amassed over 404,000 followers.
Under Perry’s leadership, Cruz is active on social media and a pioneer among his Senate colleagues. In 2013, Cruz made history by becoming the first person to read tweets on the Senate floor. While Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (now among Cruz's Republican challengers for the presidential nomination) was conducting a 12-hour-long filibuster protesting the Obama administration’s drone strikes program, Cruz would occasionally relieve Paul and read feedback that Paul had been receiving on Twitter.
Said Cruz at the time on the Senate floor, “I feel quite confident that the senator from Kentucky is not aware of the Twitterverse that has been exploding. So what I wanted to do for the senator from Kentucky is give some small sampling of the reaction on Twitter so that he might understand how the American people are responding to his courageous leadership.”
Cruz has also been a prolific creator of hashtags, such as #MakeDCListen, which Cruz popularized in September 2013 when he held a marathon filibuster on the Senate floor to voice his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Cruz’s initial tweet with the hashtag received over 400 retweets, and in the duration of his hours-long filibuster, the hashtag was mentioned over half-a-million times on Twitter.
Later, Cruz started #DefundObamacareBecause, and invited followers to complete the tweet. He then read some of his favorites on the Senate floor.
Social media is a fickle beast, though, and evolves so rapidly that what was in vogue in the 2012 election cycle could be yesterday’s news when it comes to the 2016 campaign. New tools including Periscope, Meerkat, and Snapchat didn’t exist in prior election cycles. So what’s next for Perry and the Cruz campaign?
Perry says he loves Periscope, the live-streaming app that allows users to broadcast video on Twitter. As Cruz began to hit the campaign trail, “People would message us on Facebook and Twitter and ask when we were coming to their state … unfortunately we can’t make it to every state, so we’ve made a point to start Periscoping those events to give people a look at what the campaign looks like” no matter where they are, Perry told msnbc.
“We’re open to using whatever social tools are available – it’s very analogous to what we did in the 2012 Senate race. We look at social media as a platform to get our message out, have our supporters share it with their friends, and reach potential new voters,” Perry said.
“In the 2012 Senate race we knew we’d never spend dollar for dollar compared to our competition, but using social media and our grassroots network of online supporters was really key to spreading our message out there. 2016 will be somewhat similar.”
The Cruz team is also betting big on digital analytics to better understand and target potential voters on the web. Long-time political strategist Chris Wilson is a partner at the firm WPA Research, and helms the campaign’s digital insights, advertising, and analytics. Beyond understanding who their potential supporters are, Wilson aims to deliver precise digital ads to target audiences based on demographics, location, interests, and even based on personality.
In past elections, Wilson told msnbc, “It used to be about micro-targeting, but now I’d say we’re doing direct targeting – targeting each voter as an individual, not a group.” Wilson aims to move beyond targeting demographic or regional groups and use data to personalize digital ads for each and every potential voter.
“When people say Democrats are beating Republicans in data – I reject that,” said Wilson. Republicans have struggled to find their footing in the world of digital and data – a space that has long been dominated by Democrats, starting with President Obama's first campaign in 2008.
Among the 2016 Republican field, Sen. Paul has established himself as the digital candidate to watch. But Perry and Wilson are working hard, even in the early weeks of a long battle, to prove that Cruz can be the most digitally-savvy Republican out there. “We’re using digital data more aggressively than I would say anybody else in the Republican field,” Wilson said.