This year, social networking sites were the newest hot place to be for candidates seeking to reach younger voters. Here are three points of view (from Ryan Alexander, Christine Williams, and Kari Chisholm) on the usefulness of Facebook and MySpace to an election bid. Chiming in are a campaign staffer, a researcher and a political web consultant.
Ryan Alexander is the online organizer for All America PAC which supports Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s potential 2008 presidential candidacy. He discusses Bayh’s presence on Facebook and YouTube.
“We see social-networking sites such as Facebook as a great way to communicate directly with voters and supporters in an environment that is comfortable to them. This approach is particularly useful in reaching out to young voters who have come to view politicians with high levels of scepticism and cynicism and are considered one of the groups that is least likely to vote,” says Alexander.
The senator provided all of the content for his Facebook profile and is kept informed about what students are doing on the site and what they are asking him. His staff also used Facebook via issue campaign groups such as “Support and Expand AmeriCorps” and “Make Every Vote Count”.
Alexander claims some success in bringing young people to attend events with Senator Bayh. His goal is to make social networking sites as successful in organizing supporters online in the next presidential election as MeetUp was for Howard Dean in 2004.
“Americans, and young people in particular, are spending far less time using traditional forms of media and a far greater portion of their time online and our strategy to reach out to these voters must reflect that change as well,” points out Alexander. Through the different pages devoted to him on Facebook, Evan Bayh currently has over 5,400 “friends” on the site.
Christine Williams is professor of government at Bentley College in Massachusetts. During the 2004 elections, she studied how presidential candidates used MeetUp and concluded that voters who attended Meetup meetings became much more involved in supporting the candidate, talking to others about him, contributing dollars or volunteering for the campaign.
She is now conducting a similar study about the use of Facebook by 2006 congressional and gubernatorial candidates. “Are candidate postings on the site a useful viral marketing tool for generating publicity, campaign contributions, and ultimately votes?” is the question Bentley is currently trying to answer.
“Facebook offers candidates a low cost way to reach the college student demographic – a longstanding recruiting pool for campaign workers. On the other hand, it is hard to get noticed among the other 108 million Facebook profiles,” she reckons.
Five weeks before the elections, Williams noted that a majority of candidates still had not taken advantage of Facebook as a campaign tool. Only 12% of candidates for the house – mostly Democrats – had. However, 43% of candidates for state governor had personalized their profiles.
“Facebook members who are undecided or not very interested in politics can become engaged by viewing a friend’s profile that prominently displays support for various candidates and causes, right along with their list of favorite bands and sports teams,” pointed out Jeff Gulati, the study’s co-author.
Kari Chisholm is president of Mandate Media, a company which helps candidates organize their online strategy. He writes a blog called Politics and Technology (politicsandtechnology.com). According to Chisholm, the 2006 campaign was a trial run with parties and candidates experimenting with social networking sites.
“Political parties and unions have been shrinking while the number of people who care about specific issues is exploding. People are engaged in communities because they want to be part of something larger than themselves. Like rock group fans, they want to chat with others who share their interest,” Chisholm believes.
“Networking sites are terribly inefficient. They are like a large Viking ship with people rowing in opposite directions. But they can generate so much excitement that they can get things moving,” says Chisholm who was impressed by the use of MySpace and Facebook by the underdog candidate in the race for comptroller in Maryland.
“Peter Franchot’s campaign manager is a young guy who belongs to a rock band. He was able to get 700 volunteers in a race that is not sexy.” But Chisholm warns that these tools are not right for every candidate and that the effort might not be worth the while unless the race is state-wide.