The Political Candidate Social Media Divide


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As I've written about before in this column, a significant factor that helped put President Barack Obama in the White House was the brilliant social media marketing of the Obama for America campaign. Under the leadership of David Plouffe, the Obama campaign used social media as a primary tool, not as an afterthought.
The number of people the campaign reached on the web was staggering: Millions friended Obama on Facebook and joined the MyBO social organizing site. By Election Day, Obama had nearly four times more Facebook supporters than McCain and 20 times more Twitter followers. If, like me, you're interested in insider details about how the Obama campaign used social media, I'd highly recommend Plouffe's book The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory.
I have to admit that I am a campaign junkie. I love observing the marketing aspects of important political races. It doesn't matter who I support; it's the race that keeps me riveted, especially when one or more candidates deploy social media. So it's fascinating to have watched firsthand how Martha Coakley and Scott Brown campaigned for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. I was surprised that Coakley basically ignored new media in favor of the old playbooks that got Ted Kennedy elected.
Of course, there is much more to the race: Politics and platforms and personal connections are important. But didn't Obama for America teach us that the web has the power to push a candidate over the top? Obama also recognized the power of young voters (whose communication of choice is digital).
Let's look at a few numbers. As I compared the morning before Election Day, @MarthaCoakley had 3,520 Twitter followers compared to @ScottBrownMA with 10,214 followers. Coakley counted 14,487 Facebook fans to Brown's 76,700 fans. Advantage Brown by more than 3-1.
Living in the securely blue state of Massachusetts, I always envied those from Iowa and New Hampshire who got so much candidate face time in presidential elections. Now that I've lived through a tight race, forget it. The robocalls are crazy: I get a half dozen a day! And the television commercials ... don't get me started.
At the same time, why did Coakley ignore social media? The event section on the Coakley site showed dozens of rallies and nearly 100 phone bank events in the 3 days leading up to Election Day. Yet there were zero tweetups and zero virtual events listed.
Massachusetts is a hotbed of information technology. People here are plugged in. Most of my friends don't even use the phone anymore except to call the plumber. Boston is a college town populated by young people who don't have landlines.
Several days before the election, I learned that Obama was to rally for Coakley in Boston, and I wanted to go. But there was no mention of the event on her Twitter feed at all prior to the event. Nothing. What about telling fans first? You might recall that Obama announced Joe Biden as his running mate via social networking tools such as SMS and Twitter before he sent a press release to the media. Coakley seemed to have been on Twitter and Facebook as an afterthought, an item on a checklist. The Brown social media efforts were much more active.
I actually attended the Obama rally the Sunday prior to the election. It was the first time I had seen a sitting president speak live, and I enjoyed it. Hoopla was generated. Television sound bites were secured. But look closer: The event was held at Northeastern University and sponsored by the Student Democrats. Quick. How do college students communicate? Facebook and SMS, of course. Yet these two forms of communications played absolutely no formal part in the rally. The brochure that was handed out had no web addresses or social media sites.
At the rally, Coakley fans were asked to vote. They were asked to volunteer at phone banks. They were asked to talk to neighbors and friends. But were the many college students in the crowd told to talk up the Coakley campaign on Facebook, the college student communication tool of choice? No. Were people at the rally asked to tweet? No. Were they asked to join Coakley's fan page? No.
The Coakley campaign underestimated the importance of social media and the new rules of marketing and PR. John McCain relied on what worked to elect former President George W. Bush, and he lost partly because he failed to effectively use social media. This past campaign, Martha Coakley relied on the playbook that got Ted Kennedy elected, and, like McCain, she lost (in part) because she failed to take advantage of social media.