Presidential hopefuls expand use of social media

BY ALLIE WRIGHT | MAY 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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A “friend” on Facebook and a follower on Twitter may be more significant than ever to many potential presidential-nomination candidates during the 2012 caucuses.

Following President Obama’s technological moves in his 2008 campaign, many GOP politicians are taking advantage of social media in an effort to catapult themselves into the national political spotlight for the 2012 election.

This year, experts predict, the media environment normally generated in the Iowa caucuses will expand as increasing numbers of candidates turn to social media to try to appeal to a greater audience.

Potential candidates for the GOP presidential-nomination hope more self-generated buzz, particularly in Iowa, will help them garner more media exposure during the caucuses and the following primaries, experts said.

“Iowa matters a lot,” said David Redlawsk, an Iowa caucus expert, political-science professor at Rutgers University, and former political-science faculty member at the University of Iowa. “It matters primarily because of the media environment that’s generated.”

The role of the Internet is becoming greater, said UI political-science Professor Caroline Tolbert, a coauthor of Why Iowa — a book on the role Iowa plays in having the first caucuses of the year. And the outcome of those caucuses reverberates across the web and the country.

Successful caucus candidates will receive a large amount of media coverage in succeeding states, but so will underdogs who perform better than expected — and seemingly popular candidates who flop.

“It’s not who wins Iowa that matters as much, it’s doing better than expected,” Tolbert said.
And the media coverage generated has increasingly moved into the social sphere.

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First in the nation

Iowa, which gained the first-in-the-nation status in 1972 with the Democratic caucuses, now holds just under 1,800 caucuses across the state every four years, said Mary Mosiman, the deputy of elections for the Iowa Office of the Secretary of State. In 1976, both major parties held their caucuses as first in the nation for the first time.

According to the Iowa Democratic Party, 220,588 people participated in the Democratic caucuses in 2008, compared with 124,000 in 2004.

More than 119,000 people participated in the Republican caucuses in 2008. But Casey Mills, the communication director for the Iowa Republican Party, said the Iowa GOP has seen a surge in new voter registrations since 2009.

And campaigning in Iowa is when Obama began his pioneering — and ultimately successful — use of social media.

Iowa Democratic Party head Sue Dvorsky said the Obama campaign set the standard in how to effectively use social media to increase the candidate’s visibility and efficiently spread his messages to supporters and potential voters.

Obama was able to use social media to not only publicize his campaign but to connect supporters, said Matt Ortega, a new-media consultant at New Partners, a firm that helps build campaigns and develop advocacy plans, and a former web specialist for the Democratic National Committee who managed the party’s online presence during the 2008 election.

“It brings people into the campaign and activates them,” Ortega said, noting the Obama campaign was not only able to inspire supporters to sign up for an e-mail list, they also channeled that support into donations — and the supporters persuaded their friends to join, too.

Ortega, who worked for the DNC from December 2007 until February 2009 and used his personal Twitter account to publicize the party before it used its own, said the Democratic Party has a leg up on the Republican party because the GOP tends to value more traditional ways of campaigning.
And young voters are likely to respond best to social media, said UI political-science Professor Bob Boynton.

Appealing to the youth

The popularity of both Facebook and Twitter have expanded exponentially since Obama’s presidential run, which will likely cause him and potential Republican candidates to use social media more than ever, Boynton said.

While campaigns still pursue traditional media, such as television and radio, they’ve realized the importance of the youth vote and how best to spark it.

Alex Conant, a spokesman for Tim Pawlenty, a potential GOP presidential-nomination candidate, said that while his campaign won’t let social media replace traditional campaigning, it is useful for interacting with young voters.

“[Young voters] use it in their daily lives and are perfectly comfortable interacting with other friends, other organizations online,” Conant said.

Natalie Ginty, the chairwoman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, echoed the belief. Young voters who are always online are more likely to find an organization through a link on Facebook, she said.

“It’s one way to talk to young people,” she said, and she has noticed campaign videos and commercials have often made their way onto Facebook and Twitter lately as a way for candidates to promote themselves.

And UI political groups have raised their focus on recruiting supporters through social media rather than sending e-mails.

Margaret Murphy, the president of the UI Democrats, said the group’s Facebook site has become its main outreach tool. She’s more likely to send Facebook invitations than e-mails to publicize events around campus, she said.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that more people pay attention to Facebook than they do the university e-mail,” Murphy said.

Though the group has not started any work about the caucus season yet, she said, Facebook helps the UI Democrats reach more people with its overall purpose, especially those who do not attend its meetings.

Increasing popularity

A glance at current likely candidates suggest they all recognize the importance of using technology to publicize their platforms. At least 13 potential presidential-nomination candidates have active Twitter accounts.

Donald Trump, a possible Republican presidential-nomination candidate, has more than 503,000 followers on Twitter. Along with promoting his television series “The Apprentice,” he publicizes his political appearances on Twitter.

Pawlenty boasts more than 31,800 followers on Twitter. Approximately 84,000 people have “liked” his Facebook page. And he supports his state’s athletics teams through social media. On Tuesday, he Tweeted, “Congrats to Francisco Liriano and the Minnesota Twins on pitching today’s no-hitter. Awesome job.”

On May 1, Pawlenty posted a Tweet commenting on Osama bin Laden’s death.

“Pres Bush promised that US would bring Osama bin Laden to justice & we did. I congratulate our armed forces & Pres Obama for a job well done,” he said.

Newt Gingrich, who has a presidential-exploratory committee, Tweeted, “What’s better than a royal wedding in London? Attending the @NRAILA Convention in Pittsburgh. I speak at 1:15 p.m.”

Others have accounts but Tweet less often.

Gov. Mike Huckabee has more than 143,000 followers on Twitter. Sarah Palin has more than 486,000 followers and more than 2,895,000 people have “liked” her Facebook page.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has Tweeted almost 20 times in the last week and has nearly 43,000 followers on Twitter.

Compared with Obama’s Twitter — he has nearly 7.5 million followers — these numbers are minuscule, but they are growing every day.

And candidates are increasingly bypassing traditional outlets for major announcements.

The first Republican to announce an official bid for candidacy was Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor. During his announcement on the steps of the New Hampshire Statehouse, a Tweet was posted on his Twitter account: “First time to say it. I am running for president.”

On April 11, Mitt Romney posted his announcement of a presidential-exploratory committee via a video online and linked to it from Twitter.

A new way to keep up

Jonathan Martin, a senior political writer for Politico.com, said journalists closely monitor those sites for updates.

“Political news is now migrating online,” he said. “And not only online but to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.”

He said competition among news outlets is not necessarily more intense because of social media, it just allows political journalists to obtain information and keep track of candidates in different ways.

“[Social media] make the world smaller, that’s for sure,” Martin said. “Smaller and faster.”

Social media also gives candidates more control over their message, experts say.

Tim Hagle, a UI political-science associate professor, noted that social media allow candidates to communicate directly with people who are interested in the topics they discuss.

“[Sarah] Palin doesn’t want ideas filtered by outlets she doesn’t trust,” he said.

Though Pawlenty’s campaign is not worried about the former Minnesota governor’s statements being taken out of context by media outlets, he still enjoys the direct message he can send via social media.

“In some ways, I think Twitter and Facebook and the web can hold the media accountable,” Conant said. “And if anyone ever does misquote him, [social media] are a quick way to respond to our supporters.”

And while Boynton said social media largely appealed to a younger audience, Martin said he thinks young voters who use social media to keep up with politics will most likely continue to do so once they enter the work force.

“There will be more and more adults who are used to a world in which you obtain information through the Internet and social networks,” he said. “It’s only going to be more important.”

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