What’s social campaigning got to do with it?

Brandon Macsata Contributor
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In 1984, singer-songwriter Tina Turner asked “What’s Love Got to Do with It” in her breakthrough solo album. This year, political observers find themselves asking the same thing about the massive infiltration of social media into political campaigns—“What’s Social Campaigning Got to Do with It?” As we see it, the answer is pretty simple for candidates running for the U.S. Senate: the difference between winning and losing.

You don’t have to look far to witness the power of social campaigning. The January special election in Massachusetts demonstrated the success of social media and other tools. His technology-driven messaging and fundraising activities fueled Scott Brown’s upset victory, in part. While many campaigns are probably familiar with Facebook or Twitter, there are many other applications that need to be incorporated into a winning effort.

Campaigns are successful when the candidates socialize with their supporters and target voters, but it will not be enough for campaigns to craft a powerful message and push them through the traditional media channels.

What then are the implications for candidates that want to be the victor on Nov. 2, 2010?

In the 10 states where leading political prognosticators deem the Senate seat a “tossup” (Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania) an analysis of social media tools being employed by the various candidates from Jan. 29-Feb. 6, 2010, revealed some striking results.

While most candidates appear to have embraced the most well-known social media tools—such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—and e-mail sign-up and a grassroots action center, there is varying utilization of other important web communication tools that could prove especially helpful in a tight race—namely blogs, Digg, Flickr, LinkedIn, SMS/text messaging and widgets, just to name a few.

“Today’s environment is a place where candidates and causes cannot simply push messages anymore,” summarized Marc Ross, principal and founder of 2ndSix, a leading social-media consulting firm. “Candidates and causes must do and act. They must engage, connect and interact with voters across every platform, channel and device. As candidates and causes seek to do and not just push, the end users and message recipients should not be able to differentiate between online and offline—this is the place your campaign needs to be.”

According to Ross, highly competitive campaigns will need to participate directly in conversations with voters and provide them with more meaningful value exchanges.

The Senate race in Colorado provides a perfect example, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet—who must first survive a primary challenge—faces a tough general election matchup. Bennet’s vulnerability is evidenced by the primary challenge of Andrew Romanoff, as well as competitive nature of three Republicans vying to challenge him—Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, Ken Buck and Tom Weins.

According to the latest poll released by Rasmussen Reports (Feb. 5), Republicans in Colorado are faring better than their Democratic counterparts—but for the most part, all signs point toward the Centennial State being a close election. While Norton is leading Sen. Bennet by 14 points, she leads Romanoff by just 7 points; meanwhile, Weins and Buck post small single-digit leads over both Bennet and Romanoff, but mostly within the poll’s margin of error. The bottom line is that this snapshot further demonstrates the need for candidates in this state to utilize every available campaign communication tool possible.

Among all of the major Colorado candidates’ websites, they have the basic email sign-up options and advocacy/grassroots action centers. Additionally, as of penning this piece, they are using Facebook (Bennet has 2,632 fans, Romanoff has 2,056 fans, Norton has 1,421 fans, Buck has 1,504 fans and Weins has 748 fans), Twitter (Bennet has 945 followers, Norton has 706 followers, Weins has 355 followers, Romanoff has 342 followers and Buck has 334 followers) and YouTube (Bennet has 1,060 channel views, Romanoff has 500 channel views, Weins has 214 channel views and Norton has 186 channel views). Buck is the only candidate who doesn’t appear to have a YouTube channel. All five candidates are also using Flickr.

The other social campaigning tools tell a much different story—with MySpace (important among younger voters) only being used by the two Democrats. Bennet and Buck are using SMS/text features, while Romanoff and Norton are using campaign blogs. Romanoff is the only candidate with a LinkedIn account, and none of the candidates are using Digg or widgets.

In other states with endangered Democratic incumbents on the ballot—like Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada as well as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—social media could very well be the deciding factor for their political fate. All three incumbents are going toe-to-toe with their respective challengers on incorporating social campaigning activities—but considering the bigger election problem of their growing unpopularity among the electorate, they each could be doing more with Digg and Widgets, as well as using some other communication tools. For example Lincoln is not using SMS/text or LinkedIn, Reid is not using MySpace or LinkedIn and Specter is not using a blog or Flickr.

Illinois and Missouri are two other races to watch.

In Illinois, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk leads the Democratic nominee, Alexi Giannoulias, in most polls providing yet another fall campaign that could be decided by social media strategies. For the most part, Kirk has demonstrated a commanding use of Facebook and Twitter thus far, but Giannoulias is poised to use other social media outlets where Kirk is absent—including SMS/text messaging and MySpace; Giannoulias also posts better YouTube numbers than his Republican opponent.

A close Senate race in Missouri between Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan should come as no surprise since the Show Me State is often characterized as a bellwether in American politics. The mere fact that this race is pitting two of the state’s political dynasties against one another just makes it that much more interesting.

Ross suggests that the eventual winning campaign must develop a credible social voice.

“Both Blunt and Carnahan will need to focus on developing credible voices for their social media efforts,” said Ross of the tight battle in Missouri. “These voices will need to be more engaging, personal, humble, authentic and participatory than traditional, push advertising and mass broadcast messages.”

Missouri voted for John McCain over Barrack Obama in the 2008 presidential election by a very small margin 49.39 percent to 49.25 percent, or a difference of only 3,903 votes. Using past campaign analysis, social media will likely provide the deciding “get-out-the-vote” edge for the eventual winner. Both Blunt and Carnahan appear to have picked their social campaigning favorites, with Blunt showing strength on Facebook (2,053 fans) and Twitter (5,237 followers), as well as publishing a political blog, while Carnahan is showing a 2-to-1 edge on YouTube with 498 channel views and also a presence on MySpace. Ironically enough, in a race that will likely be very close (in 2006, Sen. Claire McCaskill defeated incumbent Sen. Jim Talent by a margin of 49.6 percent to 47.3 percent), neither candidate is currently using Digg or Widgets to disseminate key campaign messages—or other emerging strategies such as iPhone applications.

There is probably no better example of harnessing social campaigning tools to fuel a candidate’s fundraising and support than in Kentucky’s Republican primary to replace outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning. Republican Rand Paul—a self-identified insurgent candidate modeled after his father’s presidential bid, Rep. Ron Paul—is showing early signs of waging a successful social campaigning effort. Paul outflanks his Republican opponent Trey Grayson at virtually every angle of social engagement and communications, because he is using SMS/text messaging, blogs, MySpace and LinkedIn. But even in areas where Grayson has embraced social media, Paul posts huge advantages, including over four times as many Facebook fans (21,935 vs. 5,305), nearly 60 percent more followers (2,764 vs. 1,793) on Twitter and 23,406 channel views on YouTube, compared to Grayson’s paltry 1,175.

This has clearly translated into cash for Paul, which is making his campaign that much more competitive. As of December 31, Rand Paul’s campaign had raised $1,774,651, with cash-on-hand in the amount of $1,304,190—fundraising numbers that reflect effectively using social media.

In two other states where there are no incumbents on the ballot—New Hampshire and Ohio—there are interesting races shaping up between the candidates.

In New Hampshire, two-term Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes will face-off against one of three Republicans trying to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg. Among the GOP hopefuls, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte appears best positioned to challenge Hodes, yet neither candidate is using SMS/text, MySpace, LinkedIn, Digg or widgets—which is not a good sign for any candidate at this stage of the campaign season. Among the commonly-used social media outlets of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, it is really anyone’s game at this early stage; Ayotte holds a slight edge with Facebook fans (1,417 vs. 1,062) and YouTube channel views (290 vs. 263), but Hodes is holding his own on Twitter with 849 followers to Ayotte’s 715 followers. The New Hampshire Senate race provides an excellent opportunity for either Hodes or Ayotte to tip the scales in their favor by employing campaign 2.0 techniques.

Ohio provides yet another example where both candidates could be doing more to launch the social campaign strategies. The presumptive GOP nominee, former Congressman Rob Portman, is only utilizing some bare-bones social media tools; while Portman’s campaign is showing strong Facebook (4,018 fans) and Twitter (1,210 followers) numbers, he has thus far failed to incorporate YouTube, SMS/text, MySpace, LinkedIn, Digg or Widgets. To his credit, all the following are also being used by his campaign: a blog, Flickr, email sign-up and grassroots/action center.

Fortunately for Portman, his two rivals in the Democratic primary—Jennifer Brunner and Lee Fisher—appear similarly situated with their weak social media strategies. Brunner has 2,208 Facebook fans, compared to Fisher’s 2,817 fans; Brunner has 1,286 Twitter followers compared to Fisher’s 806 followers; and both have nearly the same number of YouTube channel views (585 vs. 518, respectively). While Brunner is using SMS/text and a campaign blog, Fisher is a rarity in that he’s using Digg—but neither Brunner nor Fisher has embraced MySpace, LinkedIn or Widgets.

With Senator Evan Byah’s surprise retirement announcement, it is still too early to tell how social media could impact the Senate election in the Hoosier State. But one other race to watch is the primary battle brewing in Florida between Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.

Rubio has come out of nowhere to best Crist by 12 points in a recent Rasmussen Report poll. His success is fueled, in part, by his strong deployment of Social Campaign strategies since he entered the race which was once considered a political coronation for the popular governor. In just 10 days, Rubio’s campaign raised over $720,000 from 8,000 donors—which amounted to a virtual campaign attack on Crist’s support for President Obama’s stimulus package last year. The success of the money bomb was embodied in its use of numerous social media strategies—including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and viral marketing by other conservative candidates and activists.

“Crist’s campaign has thus far failed to provide a return on emotion to his supporters,” said Ross of the Florida GOP Senate race. “Currently, loyalty between voters and candidates is asymmetric. The more voters sense a symmetrical relationship, the more loyal they will be.”

Ross believes that Rubio has gained the upper hand, in part, by using social media as a tool for building a symmetrical campaign relationship, in which both Rubio and his supporters reap equal returns from their relationship.

With so much at stake in the midterm Congressional elections, candidates for the U.S. Senate—incumbents and challengers alike—are going to need every available resource to put them in the “victor” column on Election Day. To excel in this new political and grassroots environment, it will be critical for campaign to harness the power of social media and expand a campaign’s online reach utilizing a number of social media tools. Time will tell what’s social campaigning got to do with it.

Brandon Macsata serves as managing partner of the Macsata-Kornegay Group, Inc. – a national political and public affairs consulting firm specializing in grassroots media campaigns and political fundraising