Senate Candidates Count Cyber Friends in Facebook Social Media Campaigns

In Florida’s three-way U.S. Senate race, poll numbers aren’t all that is going Marco Rubio’s way. The Republican nominee also has the most “friends.”

On his Facebook page, Rubio’s 128,800 followers far surpass those for Democratic rival Kendrick Meek and Governor Charlie Crist, who is seeking the Senate seat as an independent. The combined number of Facebook friends for Crist and Meek is about 51,600.

Rubio, a former state House speaker from Miami backed by Tea Party activists, held a 14-percentage point lead over Crist and a 22-point advantage over Meek in a poll released Oct. 13 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut.

Television ads for Rubio urge viewers to sign onto his Facebook page, and aides see a connection between the candidate’s standing in the polls and the campaign’s use of social media.

More friends can mean more money for candidates, as most Facebook pages encourage fans to donate to campaigns. Rubio’s Facebook site gives out signs and stickers to fans who recruit additional donors online.

“Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth and sharing with friends,” said Alex Burgos, a Rubio spokesman. He said the TV ads direct viewers to Facebook instead of the campaign’s website to prompt a more direct conversation with the candidate. Facebook also allows the campaign team to better monitor voter reaction and support, Burgos said.

Candidate Accounts

All of the 73 Senate candidates for the two major parties this year have Facebook accounts, 72 candidates have websites and 70 utilize Twitter, a social network featuring short message updates, according to Bloomberg research. On campaign websites, 85 percent of these candidates have video-sharing YouTube accounts and 43 percent have blogs, the research found.

Such reliance on Internet-based tools illustrates how candidates have recognized their potential value. “People are getting more savvy about what audiences they can reach and where they can reach them,” said Evan Tracey, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Facebook, which touts more than 500 million users, allows members to join groups, express political beliefs and plan events. Twitter lets users express beliefs, repost comments by others and track online conversations about candidates and policies. With YouTube, candidates can create online channels to post videos for the public.

‘Opened the Door’

The tools enable even poorly funded candidates to extend their reach. “Social media has opened the door for the little guy,” said Heather LaMarre, a University of Minnesota professor leading a study on social media and the 2010 campaigns. “It’s a way of getting a message to a lot of people. It’s very quick and very responsive,” she said.

How effective social media campaigns prove to be in the Nov. 2 elections will help dictate future funding for them over television and print advertising, LaMarre said.

Tracey said candidates are developing “a better understanding” of how the digital tools “fit in the campaign.”

In North Dakota, Democratic Senate candidate Tracy Potter features himself in YouTube videos he calls “Grillside Chats,” evoking President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats broadcast on radio during the 1930s.

Grassley Ad

Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican seeking a sixth term, flaunts his Twitter skills in a TV campaign spot on television. The ad starts with one woman saying to another: “I heard Chuck Grassley has a Twitter.” The second woman, with a concerned look, asks: “Oh, can it be cured?”

“Oh, not that kind,” the 77-year-old Grassley says in the ad. He adds: “I’ll tweet, I’ll text, I’ll do whatever it takes. I work for you.”

Rubio, 39, “tweets,” or posts, messages on Twitter that include personal notes to show people he is “just a normal guy who watches football, takes kids to school, and experiences things,” Burgos said.

The candidate eschews help from aides with his postings. “Authenticity is a big deal there,” said Michael Beach, a partner at Alexandria, Virginia-based Targeted Victory, Rubio’s digital strategy firm.

Rubio’s communications team controls a second Twitter account that posts press releases.

Use of Aides

Many candidates shy away from posting directly on their Twitter accounts, relying instead on aides, said Tracey.

Meek, 44, calls in tweets to his communications department, which then proofreads the postings, said campaign spokesman Nathan Click. “He is the fire behind it,” Click said.

Crist, 54, posts updates and pictures to his Twitter account to let followers know about his activities. “Quick stop for coffee w the First Lady at Panera Bread in South Tampa,” Crist posted Oct. 3.

The increased political use of social media was spurred by President Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 presidential election. He collected over $500 million online, according to Blue State Digital, the online fundraising firm that worked on the Obama campaign.

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook Inc., created a social media site for the Obama campaign -- mybarackobama.com -- which allowed its 2 million members to organize efforts in neighborhoods and workplaces.

A failure by Republicans to aggressively embrace new technology cost the party votes in 2008, Beach said. “Social media was a big part in that,” he said.

Tea Party

This year, social media has helped the Tea Party movement by providing the small-government, anti-tax activists with “technologies to organize them structurally to become a bigger force,” Tracey said.

In Nevada’s Senate race, Tea Party-backed Republican Sharon Angle has about 94,700 friends on Facebook; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrat seeking his fifth term, has 13,700. In Delaware, Tea Party-backed Republican Christine O’Donnell’s 25,600 friends more than double those of Democratic opponent Chris Coons in a race for the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden.

In California’s Senate race, Republican Carly Fiorina, former chairwoman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., has 306,000 Twitter followers, compared with 23,400 for Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.

Boxer campaign spokesman Matthew Kagan, when asked about the disparity, said “I have no idea.” He also said, “Senator Boxer’s supporters are a very loyal and dedicated group.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Traci McMillan in Washington at tmcmillan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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