Inside America’s First ‘Social Election’

By Jennifer Moire 

Observers of the 2012 campaigns know that this cycle has been dubbed the first “social election,” with candidates up and down the ballot using social media to do everything from raise money to organize supporters.

CQ Researcher published a thorough examination of social media’s role in 2012 politics in an article entitled, “Social Media and Politics,” which is located behind their pay wall.

While many social networks were tried and tested this cycle, Vincent Harris, the digital director for Newt Gingrich’s campaign, calls Facebook the dominant media platform, the ‘800-lb. gorilla’ of the 2012 elections, because of the number of friends a user can obtain and its reach potential.

As Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean who is credited for pioneering the use of the Internet in politics, says the catch phrase for this year could be, “It’s the networks, stupid.”  Yet, Republicans are determined to keep pace.

Here’s a look at some of the trends identified in the piece.

Twitter to Reddit

You know that social media have become part of the political lexicon when mainstream forms like Twitter and newer platforms, such as reddit, are being used by presidential campaigns.

Twitter users posted 1.8 million tweets on Election Day in 2008. Now, tweets average more than 340 million a day–nearly 200 times as many.  At this year’s Republican National Convention, there were more tweets the day before the convention started than throughout the entire 2008 event.

During the height of the Republican National Convention, President Barack Obama sat down for a reddit AMA (reddit-speak for ‘ask me anything.‘) Not only did the event cement the president’s cred among techies, he was able to sign up 10,000 reddit users as potential volunteers.

Both of the presidential candidates and their wives took to Pinterest to humanize themselves to voters. Ann Romney was able to put a more personal face on a robotic candidate, by pasting family photos and recipes.   And each of the contenders posted song lists on Spotify.


Microtargeting voters on social media is a key trend this election cycle. Both presidential campaigns launched apps that direct voters to their polling place, for example, which in turn provides campaigns with a treasure trove of data.

For campaigns, targeting allows the candidate to engage with voters on issues you know a specific voter cares about which might be untouched by the media. However, privacy advocates are concerned that voters may not know this data is being collected or for what purpose.  Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, wants retention limits on data so voter information can only be used for a short time.

He also likens microtargeted ads to Super PAC ads, saying targeted ads could enable politicians to share false pitches, “under the radar, without being accountable to the public.”

Others, like Zaneis, say that personal data is already all over the Internet.

Polarized or Not Polarized

Is social media contributing to the nation’s political polarization?

More than one-third of social media users in a Pew Research Center report said they received “strong negative reaction” after posting a political comment.

Bill Shireman, President of San Francisco-firm Fortune 500, believes the brevity inherent to social media messages, “tweak people’s impulses,” as opposed to causing them to think.  Steve Deutsch of Jones Public Affairs says that users like people they agree with, reinforcing their own views, thus adding to the polarized climate.

However, others believe there is a way around these echo chambers. Facebook and Twitter users can like and share longer articles that give explanations of their views.

The Equalizer

Some believe social media may be the great equalizer of the 2012 campaigns, a trend that started in 2010 when Republicans gained a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and conservatives won at all levels of elected office.

According to Katie Harbath, who handles GOP relations for Facebook, the social network helped those unhappy in the electorate find each other and organize.

GOP presidential candidates made extensive use of social media, one factor contributing to the contest’s length.  Candidates like Herman Cain could get traction online for a minor comment that wasn’t covered by the media. Former Senator Rick Santorum created a Facebook page for every state and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann credited Facebook with her Iowa Straw Poll win.

While President Barack Obama leads his competition on Twitter,  Mitt Romney has a respectable number of Facebook fans and doesn’t lag too far behind. Paul Ryan, however, far outpaces Joe Biden on Facebook.

John Brougher, vice president of NGP VAN, a digital media firm that advises the Obama campaign, believes this is only the beginning. More down-ballot candidates at the local level will start to use social media especially if they lack other resources.

After today we will know whether effective social media use can predict a win on Election Day.

Image credit: Christos Georghiou via