How Presidential Candidates Stack Up in Social Media

Have you been paying much attention to the Republican debates and primaries over the last couple of months? According to a survey recently released by the Pew Research Center, only 20% of Americans younger than 30 have been following campaign news very closely, compared to 31% who said the same in January 2008. While the use of social media has multiplied hand over fist since the last presidential election in 2008, the use of social media for campaign news seems to have stalled. Only 20% of Americans say they regularly or sometimes get campaign information from Facebook, 18% from YouTube and much less (5%) get it from Twitter. So what’s the state of current candidates’ social media campaigns, and why might they be drawing so little interest?

First, some background: The 2008 election season was, of course, a groundbreaking one. Barack Obama and the Democrats won in dominant fashion, driven in part by younger voters (ages 18-29) who turned out in record numbers to support Obama (66% of the youth vote versus McCain’s 31%), and made it the second-largest youth voter turnout in history. A measure of the reason for this youth participation can be attributed to Obama’s savvy social media strategy. His campaign team used no less than 15 social networking sites (can you name more than, say, 9 current social networking sites?), all of which featured prominent donation widgets that led to Obama amassing more than half a billion dollars during his 21-month presidential campaign, most of which were micro-donations of less than 100 dollars. Oh, and he had a crack e-mail team, his own social network that allowed his supporters to connect and campaign on his behalf and a “Vote for Change” voter-registration site. Obama and his campaign team used the Internet and social media to speak to and mobilize the individual voter in a masterful way and in a scope that had never been seen before. Let’s check out current candidates’ social media impact.


Barack Obama

President Obama has kept his social media game ace. Recently, the incumbent tweeted his first Spotify playlist, which includes diverse acts ranging from Florence + the Machine to Al Green to Ricky Martin. He even has Ray LaMontagne on the list! For this alone, he deserves the title of “coolest president ever.” But the basic message relayed through the release of this Spotify list is, “Hey, I listen to the stuff you listen to too. By extension, I’m one of you guys. Vote for me!”

It’s not just Spotify, however, as Obama just joined Instagram, has a kickin’ Tumblr and recently hosted a Google+ hangout. Obama also has the most Twitter followers (over 12 million) by far among all candidates. Overall, the goal of the current campaign team should be aimed at using Obama’s strong new media presence to raise awareness among young potential voters of what his administration has done for them thus far in his presidency. This will be necessary if he wants to raise his chances of re-election, since younger voters didn’t get the memo this last time around to vote during the 2010 midterm elections. Younger voters skew Democratic, and Internet users skew young, so the most important goal for Obama should be to try to raise the stakes of what turning out to vote for his reelection really means for them.


The Republican Field

In contrast to Obama, Mitt Romney lags behind. His campaign has no apps, he only has a fraction of the followers on Twitter (around 354 thousand) and his Facebook page has been lambasted for its one-sidedness, although it has the most fans (over 1.5 million) among the current Republican candidates. The problem with Romney’s social media presence is that it’s too often focused on pushing a campaign message rather than engaging in a conversation, which is the foundation upon which social media’s strength lies. Mitt is simply not lighting the online world on fire with his social media strategy. One interesting fact, however? His wife, Ann, recently joined Pinterest.


According to a study by Qorvis Communications, Rick Santorum saw his Twitter followers increase by over 36% in the three weeks following the Floriday primary, compared to Romney’s 14% and Ron Paul’s 10%. While number of Twitter followers aren’t going to predict wins (hi, Ron Paul), it can be a good indication of momentum. According to an MSNBC analysis, Santorum supplanted Romney as the number one topic of conversation on Facebook and Twitter since his February primary wins. In addition, Santorum has tens of highly devoted Facebook groups (you need permission to join them), and has a Fundly page that has received almost $227,000 from nearly 3,000 individual donors.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s campaign is … eh, let’s just not.

Among Republican candidates, social media may seem to be a lighter component of their overall campaign strategies, but that’s definitely not by design. It’s more of a product of the current situation wherein Republican support is fragmented among the various candidates. Plus, Obama and the Democrats have simply had a head start on the Internet. But recent studies have shown that Republicans are drawing even with Democrats on their internet and social media usage. Expect to see a more effective social media presence from one of these candidates once they are declared the official Republican candidate for president.


And Ron Paul

Ah, Ron Paul – the wacky and slightly-deranged uncle everyone avoids at their family reunions. Well, that’s what the stodgy gatekeepers of media and the Republican party all seem to want us to believe anyway. No matter the support or wins, Texas libertarian Ron Paul just doesn’t seem to get the mainstream media attention he deserves.

But whatever your take on him is, when it comes to social media there’s no denying he’s treated like royalty. Studies by the Pew Research Center have shown that Paul is the most positively discussed Republican candidate among the whole of blogosphere and Twitter. His online supporters are enthusiastic, and they manage to participate in every online poll or discussion that mentions him. There’s a viral-like quality of support among his online fan base that’s more a product of his anti-establishment message than his actual social media use. Case in point: In an uncomfortable interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Paul appeared positively confused by a question about one of his tweets directed at Jon Huntsman, another Republican candidate at the time. He said, “I don’t understand why this is an important issue or what it means and why Jon Huntsman was even in the campaign. So, I’m not sure the importance of what we’re talking about. It just seems irrelevant to me.” And this was after he admitted, “Yeah, I have some help on tweeting, yes.” So social media user mastermind he is not – social media content sensation he is.

What do you think of the social media campaigns currently being run by the candidates?

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