Tweet, like, and vote: Social media in modern campaigns

During the 2008 election, President Barack Obama changed people's ideas about the way a modern political campaign could be run by making social media a major component of his efforts. His robust Facebook following and Twitter outreach gained him a slew of followers, and introduced a new way to interact with voters.

Now, in 2012, politicians have even more tools to use: Facebook and Twitter are stronger than ever; Tumblr blogs allow voters to share political posts quickly; and candidates can engage in live blogs and video chats.

While some candidates at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels are implementing these campaign tactics, others have been slower to adopt them, preferring to stick with tried-and-true methods. We followed two separate Congressional campaigns featuring candidates who are using entirely different outreach methods. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who is running for reelection to a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, has embraced social media—she’s been active on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube. Republican Representative Ralph Hall, who is running for reelection to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 4th district of Texas, is barely visible on Facebook and instead sticks to newspaper outreach and press releases.

However, both campaigns have been very successful thus far. Here’s a deeper look at how different political campaigns work in the age of Pinterest.

Thoroughly modern McCaskill

One of the most widely discussed episodes of the election season thus far—Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape”—wasn’t just a face-palm moment of what not to say when running for a U.S. Senate seat. It also illustrated how much technology has changed modern campaigns—and how a savvy politician can use social media to his or her advantage.

McCaskill had been trailing the Republican Akin in Missouri’s hotly contested senatorial race, and many political observers see her seat as one that Republicans need to pick up to gain control of the Senate. But on August 19, the narrative of the race shifted.

At 11:24 a.m. Eastern time, KTVI-TV, FOX News’ local affiliate in St. Louis, Missouri, posted a video in which Akin, a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant because their bodies have “ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The Internet erupted as Akin’s remarks ricocheted around the country.

At 4:28 p.m., McCaskill issued a statement and tweeted her response.

McCaskill was quick to tweet her response to Akin's controversial statement.

A New York Times article about Akin’s comments, along with numerous other media outlets, cited this tweet, which linked to the video in question. Ultimately, it was retweeted more than 3800 times and helped boost McCaskill’s visibility nationally and in Missouri. Both her Twitter and Facebook accounts saw an uptick in visitors, many of whom stuck around, according to her campaign.

Akin backed away from his comments,releasing a statement just hours later saying that he misspoke, but by then considerable damage had been done.

A Century in Internet years

When McCaskill unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2004, her fairly robust website featured photos, videos, details about her policy positions, and an email newsletter. But its name—claireonline.com—suggests how long ago 2004 is in Internet years: It evokes Xanga and the Web of yesteryear. Another telltale indicator: the option to download “McCaskill for Governor” AIM buddy icons.

In 2006, McCaskill won a seat in the U.S. Senate with help from a similar, yet more streamlined site, which notably included a blog and an RSS feed. Her campaign used the site to promote her position on one of the biggest issues in that race—stem cell research. But Twitter was in its infancy and two-year old Facebook had just opened its doors to everyone, regardless of network, so these massive communication platforms were not yet a significant addition to any campaign. Barack Obama’s much-lauded use of Web strategies in the 2008 presidential campaign was still two years away.

A Twitter maven

McCaskill, a 59-year old mother of three, adapted with the times and joined Twitter in 2008. She quickly rose to prominence as one of the most popular politicos on the site and today has more than 79,000 followers. Her campaign team has rallied behind her Twitter prowess, turning the digital strategy up several notches this election season.

McCaskill has personal control over the account, and her tweets range from sharp political jabs to musings about family and sports. She even sent missives about her goal to lose weight last year. Her tweets are remarkably devoid of uninspired talking points and links to press releases from a PR person or social media professional (who might have been in serious trouble if they had made the mistake of expressing support for "the pubic option" instead of “the public option” in a tweet, as McCaskill once did.)  “Her interactions with people are real; It’s as authentic as it gets,” Alex Kellner, the campaign’s digital director, told PCWorld. “When you're a Senator there is a tendency for everyone to want to edit you, and I get tired of that. I yearn to break free and say whatever I want,” McCaskill told the Atlantic Wire earlier this year. “Twitter is my space to do that; nobody edits it. It drives my staff crazy...I think the fact that it is flawed and not perfect makes it more genuine and more authentic.”

A recent Twitter and Compete study found that users exposed to political tweets are 97 percent more likely to visit donation pages than other users. Because McCaskill enjoys and understands the medium, she has a distinct advantage in using it to get out her message and to drive donations.

Capitalizing on her Twitter presence in the days following Akin’s comments, the McCaskill campaign ran promoted tweets that turned up when anyone searched for “legitimate rape” or “Todd Akin.” As the race began to draw more and more national attention, McCaskill's team also ramped up its ads on Google, Facebook, and Bing, boosting much-needed traffic and money in a tight contest.

McCaskill is no slouch on Facebook either. She has racked up more than 57,000 likes and put together a vibrant page replete with campaign photos and video. Unlike with traditional media, where a campaign can share little more than a few (often contrived) shots, the senator’s Facebook page contains hundreds of pictures of her meeting with constituents, hanging out with volunteers, and giving speeches. Visitors get a personal window into the campaign trail. And the youngest voters aren't the only ones checking her page out; the greatest numbers of visitors by age group are in the 25- to 34-year-old and 55- to 64-year-old brackets.

The campaign has effectively used the social networking site to make the most of some of the race’s controversial moments. After Akin characterized McCaskill’s presence in a debate as not “ladylike,” her campaign wanted to capitalize on the sentiment that the remark might be offensive to some voters. So they turned Akin’s quote into a series of punchy graphics that Facebook users shared thousands of times.

McCaskill turned her opponent's negative remarks into punchy graphics to help her cause, and posted them on Facebook.

Such strategic moves could help decide the very competitive contest. In a race that has included a number of personal and arguably gendered barbs—Akin recently compared McCaskill to a dog—Facebook has emerged as a powerful medium for the senator to use in reacting quickly and publicly. The more effectively McCaskill’s campaign can respond Akin’s provocative remarks, the better her prospects for reelection will be.

Kellner and a deputy make up the McCaskill campaign's digital team. They update the senator's Facebook page and a separate campaign Twitter account, trying to keep visitors engaged. They are also responsible for monitoring what is said about the senator, and they shoot footage at many of the campaign's events. Other digital tools they've employed include running preroll (short ads that appear before select video content online) and overlay ads (which cover Web pages when you arrive at a site and disappear only when you click to close the ad) that mirror her television spots; a robust YouTube account; a new Twitter account for the campaign's RV, Big Blue; banner ads; and targeted advertising on Facebook. The campaign built its mailing list organically, for the most part, but it does target people based on geography, donation history, and previous interactions with the campaign. “The only challenge is that there are a lot of people talking about politics online, so it can be hard to cut through that and have our message stand out,” said Kellner.

But having an authentic candidate’s voice behind it—especially on Twitter—makes the task much easier.

Ralph Hall’s Twitter-less outreach

Meanwhile, in Texas, Congressman Ralph Hall is in the midst of his own reelection campaign. Hall has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 4th district of Texas (which stretches along the state's border with Oklahoma and Arkansas northeast of Dallas) since 1981, the first 24 years as a Democrat and the past 8 years as a Republican; and he's up for reelection to yet another two-year term. Last May, Hall swept to victory in the Republican primary against two challengers—Steve Clark and Lou Gigliotti—picking up 58 percent of the votes. According to Human Events author John Hayward, “It is extremely unlikely that Hall will lose the general election, so his seventeenth Congressional term is pretty much in hand.” Indeed, as Wikipedia notes, only four people have represented Texas's 4th congressional district since 1903.

Still, in an age where many other political figures use Web tools to reach out to voters, the 89-year old Hall is noticeably absent from the social media scene. He has a Facebook page, of course, but instead of offering personalized posts interspersed with campaign info, his only posts are links to press releases on his website. His most recent post (at this writing) came on September 11 of this year, and it garnered just 2364 likes.

Hall's Facebook photos—posing stiffly with other politicians or attending other press events—show him as a man of politics but reveal little about his personality.

Hall has no Twitter account and no YouTube channel—in fact, his campaign website lacks video content altogether. And though he is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (which Todd Akin also serves on), he seems to be wary of adapting his campaign to growing technology trends. He takes a position in favor of furthering research and development investment to build stronger communication technologies here in the United States, but the issue he seems most dedicated to is changing the policies of the Environmental Protection Agency.

What explains Hall's hesitation to embrace social media? The likeliest reason is simply that his current campaign methods of town-hall gatherings, public appearances, and other in-person meetings with constituents continue to work so well for him.

Hall relies heavily on outside press interviews to help spread his message. He has written op-ed pieces and has sat for interviews with the Washington Times; he has contributed to The Hill’s Congress Blog; and he is featured in several Texas-based publications.

In any event, Hall’s district likes him enough to reelect him term after term. He’s a fierce advocate for his home district ("I'd rather be respected at home than liked in Washington," he writes in his bio on his personal website); he fights for job creation; and he went skydiving on Memorial Day earlier this year to show support for the troops overseas and to demonstrate that he remains vigorous and active at the age of 89. “Sometimes you have to do crazy things,” Hall said of the experience. And for Ralph Hall, "crazy" could very well translate into another term in office in the House of Representatives.

(Hall and his team declined to comment to PCWorld in connection with this story.)

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