High Touch, High Tech Wins the Day in Pennsylvania Primary Race

“Technology is a toolkit, but it's only as good as the values, skills, and vision of those who use it."

Last month one of the web’s earliest political bloggers and activists won a primary race against an incumbent for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Chris Rabb, who founded the influential email listserv Afro-Netizen in 1999 and is now an adjunct professor at Temple University, was able to apply his social media savvy and extensive network of connections to his campaign, and ultimately beat incumbent Tonyelle Cook-Artis by seven points, winning 47 percent of the vote to her 40 percent.

Although Cook-Artis was a freshman representative—she had won the seat in a special election after her predecessor stepped down to join the Philadelphia City Council—she had the support of all of the local elected officials, and observers at first thought that Rabb didn’t stand a chance considering the political heavyweights supporting his rival.

But Rabb had other advantages. As he pointed out when he spoke to Civicist in December, just after declaring his run, Rabb had 4,200 Facebook friends to call on for support and for votes. As of May 19, his primary opponent, Cook-Artis, had fewer than 300 likes on her campaign page.

Rabb leveraged online tools, including the new crowdfunding platform Crowdpac, to raise money and awareness about his campaign, but he also tells Civicist that he “knocked [on] countless doors in the dead of winter and spring.”

Crowdpac was “essential” to his win because it allowed Rabb to raise money and gauge support before even entering the race—without it he says he might never have entered at all—but he didn’t skimp on face to face time.

“My campaign was built on high touch and high tech, like a hand in a glove.” Rabb told Civicist in an email. “One complemented the other.”

Rabb says that how his campaign uses social media is as important as the fact that he uses it at all:

For me, it’s all about telling a compelling and authentic narrative about me and the political moment we’re collectively experiencing. The power of story-telling is ancient and inextinguishable. Visual vignettes have served as proxies for such narratives. Photos of young people knocking on doors. My sons narrating a short web video talking about the values our family shares about public service overlaying moving imagery. These images aren’t pandering; they’re representative of values and priorities that were embraced as much in terms of how this campaign was run as the type of public servant I seek to be. It’s been about walking the talk the whole way through.

Rabb says he will carry this methodology with him when he is elected in November (as the Democratic candidate in one of the most Democratic legislative districts in Pennsylvania, his win is virtually assured).

“Technology is a toolkit, but it’s only as good as the values, skills, and vision of those who use it,” he tells Civicist. “Ultimately, technology must be used to broaden transparency, bolster accountability, measure impact, and facilitate social inclusion and equity. These are the cornerstones of public integrity, and productivity without integrity is meaningless.”