A day in the social media campaign

Last modified: 7/10/2011 12:00:00 AM
The town hall meeting Tim Pawlenty held Thursday in Iowa had all the usual trappings: crisp banners, polite applause and the candidate himself telling the audience why he should be the next president. The definition of "audience," though, is where things get interesting.

Pawlenty stood before rows of Iowans assembled inside an office building, but he was also speaking to - and taking questions from - hundreds of voters across the country who watched him on a live, online video and submitted questions via Facebook. Thursday's meeting was the most recent of several in which Pawlenty has interacted with voters this way, and it's part of a political trend. President Obama took questions over Twitter last week, and the Republicans who want his job are devoting more resources than ever before to expanding their digital footprint and honing their online messages.

The battle for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and, ultimately, the White House is being waged on two fronts: the one with the cobbled-together headquarters, phone banks, lawn signs and photo ops and another with fan pages, tweetups and targeted online ads. Every declared candidate uses Twitter regularly, and at least two have created exclusive social networks for supporters. Pawlenty announced his exploratory committee on Facebook, and Herman Cain has a smartphone app that allows users to access his blog and schedule as easily as they'd check the weather.

Their goal? The digital equivalent of street cred, which they're betting will turn into cash, crowds and support at the polls.

"Social media are much more important in terms of voter persuasion," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "People are much more likely to read an article if a friend recommends it, so social media have taken on the role as trust builders. To reach people, you have reach their friends."

Each of the last few elections has demonstrated aspects of the internet's political potential. Howard Dean harnessed the power of online fundraising in 2004. President Obama's supporters used social networks to help sweep him into the White House in 2008. In 2010, the Tea Party relied on the web to organize rallies and help local groups band together behind new candidates.

That tactic, West says, is likely to continue. West recently published a paper called Ten Ways Social Media Can Improve Campaign Engagement and Reinvigorate American Democracy. As the title implies, he's optimistic about the potential of digital tools, but he cautions that it's important to use the new tools smartly.

"You can't create something that doesn't already exist," he said. "If you can get into a Tea Party network that's online and members recommend articles that are favorable to you, that's going to be a very effective campaign appeal."

The list of ways candidates are using digital media is long and diverse. On Thursday, the same day Pawlenty held his Facebook town hall, the GOP candidates used new media to share campaign appearances, criticize big government and sell merchandise. In 24 hours, the declared candidates sent about two dozen tweets, posted to Facebook 11 times and issued two YouTube videos.

Here's a snapshot of the day:

Michele Bachmann began the day by highlighting her first television ad in Iowa. Around 9:30 a.m., her campaign posted links to a YouTube video of the ad on both Facebook and Twitter. Around noon on Thursday, the YouTube video had 330 views. By noon on Friday, that number had grown to more than 27,000.

Ron Paul, meanwhile, sent a series of tweets to remind followers about appearances on Fox News, where he was scheduled "to discuss the atrocities" of the TSA on Thursday afternoon.

Several other candidates used social networks to publicize campaign appearances.

Rick Santorum's campaign sent tweets and posted to Facebook and Twitter to tell supporters would be touring Iowa "to talk growing manufacturing and shrinking govt."

Pawlenty was also in Iowa on Thursday. He tweeted about 9:30 a.m. that he had a "great start to the day in Des Moines." His Facebook town hall meeting marked the middle of his day in Iowa, which he concluded with evening Twitter and Facebook posts reminding supporters "it all begins in Iowa" and including link to a YouTube video about his Iowa campaign.

Herman Cain told his Facebook fans he was spending the day in Las Vegas, listed the address of his evening gathering and invited them to attend. Fred Karger also used Facebook to send an invite to supporters.

"Any California fans out there?" Karger posted. "I'm holding a fundraiser in Beverly Hills on July 24th. . . . I look forward to meeting all of you! See you there!"

While campaign appearances and fundraising were the focus of much of the candidates' social networking during the day, they also shared short policy statements. Gary Johnson's campaign spread Facebook posts, tweets and blog entries about minimizing government spending and legalizing marijuana. Jon Huntsman used Facebook and Twitter to promote a blog entry favoring a balanced budget amendment. Santorum published a Facebook update about big government.

"If you agree that we need to reduce the size and scope of our government because it is stifling job creation, please like this post," the Facebook post said.

Mitt Romney used Twitter early in the afternoon to announce that he was traveling abroad.

"Pleasure to meet with Prime Minister David Cameron today," said the tweet, which included a photo of the two men. "Great few days in London."

The importance of digital media has been apparent from the very beginning of Romney's campaign. He formally announced his exploratory committee not a press conference but in a video filmed one morning in April at the University of New Hampshire and posted online a few hours later. Since then, his online footprint has grown as rapidly as the brick-and-mortar campaign.

"We have a whole digital department in this campaign - bigger than the press shop," said spokesman Ryan Williams.

That department is led by Zac Moffat, who works out of a Boston office devoted to online efforts. He says his goal is to create what he calls "digital embassies" on multiple social networks, places where Romney's ideas will be heard by receptive - and, hopefully, well connected - voters.

"We're making sure that we're having conversations with people where they're already spending their time," he said.

That means posting a petition about high unemployment on Facebook, distributing campaign-trail photos via Twitter and providing ample opportunities for supporters to send information about Romney to their friends. So far, it seems to be working.

Romney has more than 1 million Facebook fans and nearly 60,000 Twitter followers, a bigger combined following than any other Republican candidate. One post he published Thursday attracted the most visible attention during the day. Around 11:45 a.m., his campaign posted an image on Facebook with the words "Obama isn't working."

"Share this picture and click 'like' if you believe Obama isn't working," the message said.

One hour later, it had 400 comments and more than 4,700 "likes."

The official website, mittromney.com, is the hub of these online operations. Visitors can donate money, sign up to volunteer, purchase official bumper stickers, T-shirts, hats and water bottles, upload photos of themselves with Romney signs or join "My Mitt," the campaigns very own social network. "My Mitt" allows users to track their fundraising efforts and contact other supporters with similar interests.

Moffat expects the mix of online offerings to evolve as the race unfolds and the campaign grows.

"The fundamentals haven't changed," he said. "It's the everyday block and tackle of a campaign... It's allocating the right assets to be successful."

 Worth the glitches


New tools are not without their headaches. Alex Conant, Pawlenty's campaign spokesman, recalls a few technical glitches with the first Facebook town hall, but says they were well worth the results.

"It's just a very efficient way to reach people," he said. "It's not just tech savvy college students who log on, it's all sorts of voters who want to learn more about governor Pawlenty and his positions."

Pawlenty's website, timpawlenty.com, also incorporates a social network built around the campaign. Called "Pawlenty Action," users earn points and badges for various activities like donating money, signing up to volunteer and linking to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Conant is proud of the diverse digital offerings and says the campaign is always looking for "the next big thing" online.

"Governor Pawlenty is an underdog, so we can't be afraid to try new things, try new ways to get our message out," he said.

Pawlenty isn't the only candidate banking on social media to help boost his chances.

Because he is lesser-known and running a campaign on a smaller budget than his competitors, Karger said he will rely on new media tools to engage voters.

"I'm a different kind of candidate," he said. "So new media is saving the Karger campaign."

Karger, whose political career involves many years as a consultant, said he will use Obama's success with new media and young voters during the 2008 campaign as a model. But he said he can improve on Obama's example, as new media tools have evolved in the past four years.

Last week, for example, Karger began to use a new social networking application called Twibbon. The application allows Karger and his supporters to place a logo with his website, fredwho.com, in the corner of their Facebook and Twitter profile pictures.

Because he only has seven staff members, Karger said he personally tweets and connects with his Facebook friends. He said it is increasingly difficult to keep up with the number of supporters who contact him through social media.

"This whole sleeping thing, it's in the way of all my work," he said. "It's a completely new era, and it's exciting to be a part of."

But Karger also said new media tools are less important in New Hampshire, where he plans to go door-to-door, hold town hall meetings and speak directly with college students.

A case study for the power of digital campaigning could be Bachmann, whose staff says she owns much of her popularity to the web.

"Social media's been a key component of Congresswoman Bachmann's success and following to date," said Alice Stewart, a spokeswoman for Bachmann's campaign.

Stewart said new media tools allow Bachmann to have instant two-way communication with a group of supporters, many of whom may not otherwise watch television news or read newspapers to learn about candidates. But she said the greatest advantage of new media is its ability to reach a wide audience. Last week, Bachmann had more than 400,000 Facebook fans and almost 20,000 Twitter followers.

"I think the key to our success with social media is just the large number of followers that we have," Stewart said.

(Meg Heckman can be reached at 369-3313 or mheckman@cmonitor.com.)

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