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Conservative Officials Turn to Crowdsourcing

Republicans in Texas have recently used crowdsourcing initiatives to gather public opinion and engage with Texans. But political scientists say such efforts tend to miss the mark in helping candidates gain new supporters.

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In the first months of his gubernatorial campaign, Attorney General Greg Abbott has criss-crossed the state on a “Main Street Texas Tour,” speaking at dozens of campaign events as he tries to reach voters.

It’s a difficult feat in a state with 254 counties, so his campaign is now taking its outreach efforts online and recently launched Townhall254, an online forum where individuals can post ideas on policy issues that will allow the campaign to gather public input and keep in touch with supporters.

Abbott’s initiative is the latest among Texas Republicans to integrate crowdsourcing — collecting ideas or information from large numbers of individuals who respond to specific requests — into his politics. But some political scientists say such efforts tend to only serve a candidate's base supporters and rarely produce new ideas for the candidate to consider. 

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently launched an online portal, Your Texas Voice, to collect ideas for interim charges that legislative committees will be assigned to research before the next legislative session.

Senate interim charges are usually determined with help from state senators and interest groups about legislation they’d like to prioritize, but crowdsourcing presents an opportunity to connect to Texans in what Dewhurst called a “citizen Legislature” in a statement released the day the forum was launched.

During his 21-hour speech last month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz read tweets on the Senate floor from individuals who had posted comments about their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He and his aides used the hashtag “#MakeDCListen” to track the posts.

The use of crowdsourcing in Texas politics isn't an exclusively Republican tactic.

Democrats tailored a Twitter hashtag for supporters of state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis of Fort Worth. Davis' team can track posts by supporters using the "#TeamWendy" hashtag. The Texas Democratic Party also used it to promote Davis' first campaign video and asking supporters to repost it.

In a political era where most elected officials reach out to supporters through social media, crowdsourcing is a way politicians can have direct and continuous contact with their base supporters, according to Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

“It doesn’t tend to enlarge the circle of communication, much less support, but it does allow politicians to stay in close contact and really two-way contact,” Jillson said. 

Jillson said crowdsourcing gives politicians a platform they can use to make voters believe they want to hear their ideas and their take on how they can do better in a way that comes with less repercussions than posting something on social media themselves.

“The odds that you’re going to get an idea from that that’s never been considered is vanishingly small, but the guy that hits ‘send’ on that tweet or the person who sends in that idea feels empowered by that, and it means next to nothing,” Jillson said.

Jim Henson, a Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said crowdsourcing allows for a mobilization of supporters but doesn’t tend to persuade new supporters.

“The tools of expanding your base, if you will, or having a persuasive effect on public opinions is pretty limited,” Henson said. “They have a tendency of an echo-chamber quality to them.”

The policy issues Abbott supporters can comment on — individual liberties and constitutional freedoms, border security and immigration and health care reform — are issues Abbott has spoken on and defended in the past.

The creation of specific tags on social media, like Cruz used on Twitter during last month's discourse on the Senate floor, also help support a politician’s agenda while garnering more publicity and free media, Henson said. 

While some politicians tout grassroots support, they may also use different approaches, like crowdsourcing, to push their agenda onto grassroots supporters through targeted campaigns or initiatives.

“It’s hard not to see this as a different manifestation of astroturfing,” Henson said. “It creates a perception of public opinion that becomes self-validated.”

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Politics 2014 elections David Dewhurst Greg Abbott Ted Cruz