Socializing the Electorate: Campaigns, Operatives Turn to New Media

campaigns are advertising on TV, but the real action is happening on smart phones and tablets

By Jeff Zbar
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Obama at a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., in April, 2011



Fernando Espuelas knows first hand the power of social media.

When he tweeted that John Boehner was “the worst speaker” ever of the U.S. House of Representatives, he “got chewed out” he says, by the RNC, Republican National Committee. It is just one illustration of the impact of social media—and makes clear that people are watching—and responding, a fact ever more in use by political campaigns and their supporters. “It’s a critical component of how both sides are communicating,” says Espuelas, host of The Fernando Espuelas Show on the Univision Radio Network and a pioneer in online communities and the social networks that have fostered them.

Barack Obama’s aggressive online campaigning, fundraising and networking earned him the moniker as, “the first digital president.” Some now are using those same social media tools in hopes of making Mitt Romney the second.

Both candidates and parties are using social media to fundraise, test messages and garner grass-roots support. They’re using it to leverage influence, hoping recipients will post and retweet to friends. It’s even spawned fake sites designed to mislead.

This may prove particularly effective among Hispanics, who tend to have higher social media usage and are widely seen as one, if not the, deciding vote bloc in the upcoming presidential election. Both campaigns are banking on social media to make a difference. “Now, all the social media is grandfathered in from two years ago and is the central tool for grass-roots organizing,” says Gus West, president and board chairman for The Hispanic Institute.

‘The Digital President’ Circa 2012

Obama for America’s reach can be felt web-wide with a Spanish-language site and an English-language site for Hispanics and a blog. It sends bilingual emails to supporters—the Latinos for Obama Facebook page has 50,000 likes and the campaign regularly tweets in English and Spanish. By linking its own site log-in via Facebook, Obama for America reportedly also can gather personal data to add to its own data banks. The campaign apparently has hired analysts, software engineers, statisticians, predictive modelers and others, according to a February story in The Guardian. Obama for America is no longer talking about its social media to reporters and Gabriela Domenzain, its director of Hispanic media, declined to talk to PODER about the issue.

Meanwhile, social media is not all about touting “their” guy. Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee created a two-minute online spoof depicting Mitt Romney’s Facebook timeline, with his gaffs front and center.

Republican Charge
Yet if Barack Obama and the Democrats have a four-year head start, the GOP is catching up. Zac Moffatt, digital director for the Romney campaign, says the campaign is tapping into strong social media adoption by Hispanics—54 percent use Facebook and 18 percent use Twitter, versus 43 percent and 13 percent of the general market, respectively. Yet Republicans have a long way to go. Romney’s Spanish-language Facebook page launched in mid-June and had 23,000 followers by month’s end, Moffatt says. Not just followers—but “across-the-board engagement and intensive levels,” he says. Still, Moffatt claims Hispanics are the highest users of the campaign’s Foursquare location-based social networking app. The campaign works closely with the RNC for mobilization and coordination.

Rollout of a Spanish-language site is “very imminent,” Moffatt says. The next target: mobile web and applications. Some 36 percent of all mobile phone users are Hispanic, and 51 percent use their phones to access the net. The campaign runs bilingual advertising on mobile. Some 20 percent of the Romney website is trafficked by mobile. About 17 percent of all consumers visiting the campaign’s mobile-optimized site are Hispanics, whom Moffatt called “power users” of smart phones and mobile Internet. At the Republican National Convention in August, the campaign and GOP operatives will flood Facebook, Twitter and Google + to transform the event into a “convention without walls,” Moffatt says.

Social media’s real power is in its reach. The “amplification effect” spreads out like ripples across a Facebook or Twitter feed, to one’s Pinterest, YouTube, even across emails, says Carmela Aquino, senior marketing manager with comScore Inc., the online data analysis service. Unlike “paid” media impressions found with traditional advertising, these “earned” media impressions take the message beyond merely fans to seeing how people are exposed to, affected by and willing to act upon a brand message.

Case in point, the Obama campaign bought some 800 million paid online display ads in January. Yet Obama’s 25 million Facebook fans provided some 66 million additional earned impressions of Obama’s brand messages virally, Aquino, wrote in a May article titled “Social Media Delivers Valuable Exposure for Presidential Campaigns.”

Social Media vs. Big Money
Still, some aren’t so sure of social media’s power this time around. More compelling may be the impact of unlimited cash borne of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Social media can coordinate action but ongoing engagement is the challenge.

Multi million-dollar contributions from big givers might overpower the small-dollar contributions that funded Obama in 2008—and the impact of social media. “Politicians given their druthers would prefer to raise an enormous amount of money and advertise on TV,” says Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at New York University, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Now, social media is really just second fiddle to unrestricted money for candidates and unsponsored television.”


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