As a candidate for president, you can collect thousands upon thousands of Facebook supporters, MySpace friends, blog readers, online video viewers and more, and yet that doesn’t guarantee you one vote in a real-world election. But perhaps the tide is turning now. With Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucuses and polling strongly for New Hampshire, there might be a case to be made connecting his online prowess to his strength among younger voters.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli noted that Obama’s success with younger voters helped him immensely in Iowa, though Garafoli wouldn’t make a direct connection between online popularity and winning the caucuses:
What’s driving the overall youth vote is that young people now have social networking tools — like Facebook and MySpace — that make it easy for them to get involved and connect creatively with others about political issues. And it is easy for the campaigns to contact them…The most successful campaigns understand that it’s not enough for their candidate to have a lot of Facebook groups linked to their name; the campaign has to connect with those supporters online and get them to do real-world work. Obama’s campaign — among others — did.
Ron Paul, however, has not been able to translate his online popularity and huge fundraising efforts with enough votes to put him in the top tier of candidates. According to Garofoli, Paul received 21% of the votes in Iowa from people under 30 years old, but only a single-digit percentage of those over 30.
At this point, it’s difficult to say that Obama’s success was due to online popularity instead of real-world popularity, just as you can’t say that Ron Paul’s online popularity didn’t do him any good. More likely, online organizing, fundraising and social networking all have their place, all can help a candidate raise his/her profile and reach people in a new venue. How that translates into votes is another matter.
When I asked MediaShift readers a few weeks ago how important digital media was to presidential candidates, you were collectively skeptical that it could win elections. Erin probably put it best:
I don’t think there is a correlation between online participation and votes — yet. I think a large part of this is that while participating online doesn’t really require too much effort, actually getting up and going out to vote does, and it’s a widely known fact that not enough Americans vote. While online participation may not directly affect the number of votes a politician receives, we definitely have seen that online participation translates to fundraising dollars. And this definitely impacts the polls.
Amy Sample Ward thinks that politicians must do more than simply set up a social networking profile or Twitter feed; they’ll need to use those tools to get people to take action — especially the action of going out and voting:
I think the difference is in how [candidates] motivate their online communities into election-time action. Will they create pledges that people can sign online pledging to vote for them, and then get media reminders (emails, Facebook messages, SMS, etc.) in the important days when ballots are actually in hand?…If one candidate is able to get people out to vote who haven’t voted before then we will have more people in the polls with more votes for him or her. So far, I don’t think that candidates are going to see much extra push from their Facebook friends or Twitter followers, not until they incorporate incremental action into their plans that can add up and will more concretely motivate their “friends” to vote for them.
Perhaps the Obama campaign is doing that already. According to the Chronicle’s Garofoli, when someone joins an Obama group online, the campaign actually messages them and asks for a phone number so they can follow up and get them to volunteer.
Digital Media’s Independent Streak
Many MediaShift readers went beyond the simple election question and commented on how online media was becoming a vital source for independent news in a world where they increasingly mistrust the mainstream media’s coverage. Peter Liu’s comment is typical of this view:
The Internet has provided us with access to information we would otherwise not have…With a few powerful companies owning the majority of the news outlets, the American public no longer gets diverse points of view…This is especially troublesome because the “news” affects how voters vote. If the voters are not informed, and instead get a one sided view, they will vote based on the media’s influence. It will have the illusion of being a democratic society. The Internet levels the playing field and I think it’s a good thing as it provides a voice of dissent.
Richard seconds this notion of the Internet providing a broader view for voters who want to get information beyond traditional media:
I think online promotion plays a role, but this election cycle Americans are tired of politics in general. Integrity and honesty are the only things that are going to inspire people to vote this year…Thank God for digital media, or else we would be voting for the ones that corporate America tell us to vote for. And if we don’t vote Ron Paul in this next year, in 4 more years the Internet will be controlled by these same corporate interests. They won’t take the chance again for people to have a true voice in elections. Right now digital media is the only media that is open and gasping for its last breath in the arena of politics.
Jacqueline K. of Georgetown University said that one important role of the Internet during the election is to give average citizens a greater voice in setting the news agenda:
Many theorists agree the state of the new media, as an influential player during elections, is still in flux. But one thing is for certain, the introduction of these new technologies is shifting the balance of power among politicans, media and citizens — ultimately granting citizens and “user-generated” content with the power to shape the political agenda…As a result of a greater population engaging in political discourse online, campaigns have been forced to alter traditional campaign stagecraft in order to reach these new virtual audiences. The access to “back-stage” information or behind the scenes exclusives is no longer restricted to the few political operatives within the campaigns.
As citizens embrace the deluge of political activity going on online, political campaigns and candidates are sensing the tides changing in the balance of power of messaging. As a result, many campaigns are now bypassing the once existing gates of mainstream media and experimenting with new means for directly communicating with voters.
With all the YouTube video messsages, podcasts and email alerts, there’s no doubt that campaigns are going directly to potential voters.
We might not be able to quantify how well online prowess leads to real-world votes right now, but by paying attention to the primary season and general election, we could be watching a new history of online participation in progress.
What do you think? Did Obama’s online popularity help him win the Iowa caucuses and give him momentum into New Hampshire? Will Ron Paul’s online supporters give him an edge in upcoming primaries? Or do you remain skeptical that online popularity can translate into election wins? Share your thoughts in the comments below.