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OPINION

Political Candidates Ignore Social Media at their Peril

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Political campaigns are gearing up for the 2012 elections and candidates are wondering how much in resources they should allocate to social media. Many campaigns rely on volunteers or scarcely devote any resources to social media. Even though Obama’s defeat of John McCain in the 2008 presidential election was partly due to Obama deeply
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integrating digital strategy into his real-world campaign, many campaigns still shrug off the importance of social media, spending less than five percent of their media expenditures online.

Social media is taking over traditional areas of campaigns, from fundraising to media to volunteer recruitment and more. Some now argue that social media is the most influential part of a campaign. Its effect is difficult to measure, however, because it encompasses so many parts of a campaign.

Fundraising, perhaps the most important aspect of a political campaign, can be extremely lucrative online. Ron Paul raised over $1 million within 24 hours online. A recent study of the California governor’s race found that the results of “social listening” closely correlated with polling and focus groups. Simply paying attention to social media – which is almost all virtually free - could save a campaign thousands of dollars otherwise spent on polling.

48% of 18 to 34 year olds check Facebook when they wake up in the morning. 65% of adults under age 30 cite the internet as their primary source for news, almost doubling since 2007. A full 34% of people ages 50 to 64 also rely on the internet for news. Twitter has become a better source for breaking news than any other news source.

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A January survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 21% of adults accessing the Internet use social media for political purposes, such as to find information on candidates, sign up for a cause or campaign, or find out who their friends are supporting. More Republicans than Democrats fall into this category, putting Republicans ahead of Democrats for using social media. This is a reversal from 2008, when Obama held a 15-point advantage over John McCain among adults using social media. The change is due to an increase in older voters and Tea Party activists using the internet.

Fewer people are watching cable news and broadcast network news, and campaign ads are losing their importance due to the prevalence of DVR which allows fast-forwarding over commercials. Traditional media is not only transforming, it is disappearing. Maryland news site The Rockville Central became a Facebook-only news organization in March.

Social media is a highly effective way to get information quickly to journalists. A poll of journalists found that 40 percent use Twitter to source stories, and 35 percent use Facebook. Social media also allows for more control over the message. “Twitter and Facebook and the web can hold the media accountable,” says Alex Conant, a spokesman for Tim Pawlenty. “And if anyone ever does misquote [Pawlenty], [social media] are a quick way to respond to our supporters.”

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Chandler City Councilman Jeff Weninger of Arizona, a prolific user of Twitter, has a response for politicians who complain about Twitter and their lack of followers. He tells them that 70 followers on Twitter is still 70 people who you can get a message out to once a day; that is more people than most politicians and candidates can get to show up at a meeting. Additionally, many people use Twitter for searches, making it irrelevant how many followers someone has.

Even if social media does not seem particularly effective, perception is important. A politician who is actively engaged on social media seems more credible and in tune with his constituents than one who neglects it. The media is watching and reporting on which politicians are using social media effectively and which ones are not.

Social media is expanding to wireless phones. Social media author and guru Ralph Benko predicts that after our current Web 2.0 era of social media, the internet will transform to Web 3.0 on mobile phones. One percent of adults have contributed money by text message to a candidate or cause connected to an election. More than one quarter of adults used their wireless phones to learn about or participate in the 2010 election cycle. Email is still important, but since people are so deluged with emails, it cannot be the only online method of communication.

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Campaigns can no longer dismissively relegate social media to volunteers. Volunteers are pulled in many directions in today’s Web 2.0 era, where every campaign is online. They cannot possibly devote enough time to the needs of a moderately-sized political campaign. Social media encompasses too many parts of a campaign to expect volunteers to master all areas. Republicans learned a lesson in the 2008 presidential election. If they repeat that mistake, they may as well change their symbol from an elephant to a dinosaur.

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