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Yet Rehberg's Senate campaign went on the offensive fast. The congressman has focused on a different message this year, trying to tie Tester as closely to President Barack Obama as possible. It's not a new tactic by any means; in 2008, Democratic congressional challenger Jim Hunt tried equally as hard to tie the incumbent, Rehberg, to the administration of President George W. Bush. But to hear Rehberg tell it, you'd think Montana had lost the downhome Tester it elected by a narrow margin over three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns back in 2006.
It's that message that Pat Williams, Montana's former nine-term Democratic congressman, finds particularly distasteful. Obama is unpopular in Montana and will undoubtedly lose the presidential election here. So Rehberg choses to forgo boasting of his own qualifications and to instead tell Montanans that a vote for Tester is a vote for Obama. Williams knows both candidates personally, considers them friends. But the negativity is too much, he says, and he wonders if Tester and Rehberg even get along in D.C. The rivalry between Republicans and Democrats has, in Williams' eyes, overwhelmed not only campaigns but politics in general.
"Every single person that I ran against or ran against me was a friend of mine," Williams says. "And if not before the campaign, they were good friends afterwards. We liked each other. And Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House liked each other. We just didn't agree on policy."
Tester and Rehberg are likely split pretty evenly when it comes to support. What they're fighting over now is the 15 or 20 percent of voters who haven't yet made up their minds, Williams says. And those voters, particularly the ones who make up their minds at the polls, are highly influenced by negative advertising.
There's a golden rule in political campaigning. To be sure that any given voter remembers your candidate's name when he or she hits the polls, you have to relay your message seven times. Tester and Rehberg have equal name recognition, which means their battle will require a more advanced set of tools.
Linda Vaughey is continually amazed at how vast that array of tools has become since her days as Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices.
"There'd be the literature drops, the yard signs, the newspaper ads, television if you could afford it," she says. "When I look back just a half a dozen years, it was a pretty unsophisticated time when you compare that to what's going on now. It's become much more of a science, and messages are targeted to certain interest groups." Back in 2004, Vaughey says, "we were still struggling with putting together guidelines for candidates to follow when they had websites."
Tweet me money
Websites are standard fare these days. Of course, so too are yard signs, literature drops and television ads. But campaigning in the 21st century has increasingly incorporated social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to push messaging. If anything, Obama's success in the 2008 presidential race proved that to reach the modern voter—particularly the young voter—a candidate has to exist on multiple platforms.
"The difference is there are more ways to get your message out," Vaughey says. "It's more important to use a variety of avenues just because, nine times out of 10, your opponent's going to be. In order to reach the same voters, you have to understand how to use the technology."
Earlier this month, the Tester campaign announced that Pearl Jam would play a benefit concert for the Senator in Missoula Sept. 30. Word spread fast through Montana media and Pearl Jam fan clubs, but in the days following the announcement, the campaign admitted something else: They'd teased the concert the weekend before, using Twitter. Attentive followers of the campaign's Twitter feed had had a chance to get the news ahead of time, provided they noticed that the first letters in a string of tweets spelled out "Pearl Jam."
Twitter and Facebook have allowed the candidates to communicate with voters on a much more frequent and informal level. Tester and Rehberg alike have shared links, posted photos, even cracked jokes using their respective social networks. Just last week, Tester informed Facebook users that he'd be on MSNBC "in 15 minutes" to talk about Citizens United in the wake of the Supreme Court's rollback of Montana's Corrupt Practices Law. Rehberg recently posted a photo of supporters marching in Stevensville's Western Heritage Parade, and one of campaign staffers at the American Legion Rodeo in Augusta. Social media has simply made campaigns more interactive for the voting public, says Bowen Greenwood with the state GOP.
"Many Americans and many Montanans have felt left out of politics in the past, and there's a great desire among our people to have our voices heard," Greenwood says. "That's why Denny Rehberg does so many listening sessions. It serves something in a democracy when the people feel they have an idea about politics and someone listens."
Savvy internet developers are even turning Twitter into a fundraising tool. Two weeks ago, Twitter's commerce platform Chirpify announced the establishment of Tweetlection, a site that allows you to tweet a donation to a political candidate via your Paypal account. The site, according to Chirpify, was built "to bring democracy to Twitter."
For Williams, the campaign trail today winds through a landscape vastly different than the one he traveled for 18 years. Blogs, Facebook, the 24-hour news cycle—people are getting their news more regularly and from a more diverse array of media. Candidates are forced to keep up with a rapidly changing voter culture.
"A huge number of individuals now get their news from the internet, so the candidates have to use it as one of their minions," Williams says. "To show how times have changed, it's only been 16 years since I left Congress and I never received one email. Not one. All handwritten letters, and of course big stone tablets. The world changed in 16 years."