The 2008 presidential race could be characterized as the first instance in which social media was used as a primary form of voter outreach—at least, for one of the candidates.
Barack Obama’s “Vote for Change,” a slogan that essentially evolved into a full-fledged social media campaign, incorporated Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Then there was his “Yes We Can” poster, which inspired a popular meme among the wired public. GOP candidate John McCain, on the other hand, largely avoided web-based tactics, especially after his running mate, Sarah Palin, became the subject of nationwide media ridicule. And the American public took notes.
Following Obama’s landslide election, the media weighed his social media output against that of McCain during the presidential campaign. Leading up to Nov. 4, Obama obtained 2.4 million Facebook ‘likes’ and roughly 115, Twitter followers; his campaign staff also uploaded nearly 2, YouTube videos throughout the race. McCain’s numbers paled in comparison, with just over 6, Facebook supporters and less than 5, Twitter subscribers. Like his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, did throughout the 1992 campaign, Obama spent 28 seeking out the votes of young people. His decisive defeat of McCain proved that his proactive strategies had some merit.
Four years later, social media is once again playing a role in the presidential race—though many analysts note that online buzz and social media activity have not been as helpful to the candidates this time around.
Take Mitt Romney, the current delegate leader who is widely considered the favorite to earn the nomination. Thus far, the candidate has done fairly well at utilizing social media to reach out to constituents. Romney’s strongest showing has been on Facebook, where he currently has more than 1.5 million supporters. In addition, the candidate launched MyMitt last October. This social media platform is linked to his official campaign website, and allows users to make donations, organize fundraising projects and make phone calls on the candidate’s behalf.
However, other attempts by the Romney camp to enter the social media sphere have failed completely. For instance, the candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, recently decided to reach out to people using Pinterest, a relatively new platform that allows users to display and comment on shared interests. As soon as her account was active, many other Pinterest users fired back. ThinkProgress, a left-leaning political blog, created a page that displays luxurious hotels where the candidate has stayed along the campaign trail. Others have been more playful, such as a collection of Etch-a-Sketch toys with incendiary messages scribbled across them—a satirical attack on the infamous comment made by Romney’s campaign adviser, Erich Fehrnstrom, in March 212.
Compared to the other candidates, Romney’s online presence is the strongest despite a recent spike by Rick Santorum, arguably the most polarizing GOP candidate in the race. Though Romney claimed the lion’s share of delegates on Super Tuesday, Santorum stole the show in regard to social media. He was tweeted about more than 5, times that day; 8 percent of these tweets were registered during his hour-long address that evening. Twitter spokesman Adam Sharp noted that during a presidential race, online activity plays a significant role in candidate success. “You consider that politics, particularly in the primary race, tends to be a game of buzz and momentum,” Sharp told ABC News. “To win an election you want the conversation to be about you.”
By day’s end, Santorum had set a new record as the most-talked about candidate ever on Super Tuesday. However, the honor was dubious, since feedback regarding the candidate was mostly negative. In fact, William Powers, the director of election project at Blue Fin Labs, noted that negative comments about Santorum dwarfed those of all the other candidates. Many of the other web searches indicated that voters were largely still unsure about the candidate altogether; Google recorded a large number of searches for topics like ‘Rick Santorum bio’ and ‘Santorum history.’ “It’s like they don’t know who he is and are now struggling to figure out who he is,” said Yahoo News Senior Editor Phoebe Connelly. Despite a few key delegate victories in the South, Santorum remains an underdog for the nomination.
Meanwhile, third place candidate Newt Gingrich has largely avoided online activities—much to the detriment of his presidential run. In late March of 2012, Gingrich fired a third of his campaign staff and announced a drastic retooling of his campaign strategy. A concentrated effort to build presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is one of the Gingrich campaign’s new tactics. Despite major name recognition, Gingrich has less than 3, Facebook supporters. He does boast roughly 1.3 million Twitter followers, though there is a slight problem: many of them are rumored to be fake.
Yet, many analysts are not so sure that online support translates into healthy voting contingents—and they are pointing to Ron Paul, a candidate who, despite a devoted web-based following, has not secured the majority of delegates in any state thus far. Though some of his die-hard supporters whisper of a conspiracy to keep the controversial candidate from reaching office, one of his campaign advisers says the matter has more to do with Paul’s party affiliation. “I think a lot of his supporters are Independents or Democrats that are fed up with Obama but are too lazy to register Republican,” the organizer told Red Alert Politics. “That or they morally object to calling themselves Republicans.” It would seem, at least in Paul’s case, that the online community can only do so much for a divisive politician.
Though Romney has attained just less than half of the 1,144 delegates required to earn the nomination, he will likely do just that if, as expected, he is victorious in New York, Pennsylvania and California, among other key contests. However, assuming Romney is named as the nominee, an important question still remains: how will the candidate fare against Obama—a proven social media juggernaut since 28?