A few years ago, I sat down for breakfast with a New York State Assembly candidate at a busy Long Island diner. I was just out of college, and he was looking for a campaign manager, so we picked up menus and started talking.
I didn’t have much (read: any) campaign management experience, so we spoke at length about social media. As I munched on a grilled cheese sandwich, I explained how his campaign would succeed on the strength of a well-coordinated social presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. The pitch must have worked because, shortly afterward, I was offered the job. After a few conversations with experienced campaigners though, I realized the strategy I laid out was a losing one.
I quickly learned that campaigning was most effective when done face-to-face. In an election where less than 4,000 people were expected to vote, updating Facebook instead of knocking on every one of those voters’ doors was essentially a waste of time. So I shifted tactics and moved all of our energy into the “ground game.” Day after day, we knocked on doors until our knuckles hurt and our legs got sore. In the end, the hard work paid off — we beat our opponent by more than 30 percentage points.
While face-to-face engagement is still the bread and butter of electoral politics, social media does have an important role to play in national campaigns. In fact, a good social media effort should not only help a candidate’s messaging efforts, but their ground game as well. It is with that point that this set of social media takeaways from the 2012 election begins:
Veteran political journalist Jon Ralston is in the habit of tweeting #wematter every time a presidential candidate makes a visit to, or a mention of, his home state of Nevada. If the denizens of social media land were to co-opt the hashag, they would be correct in using it. Social media does matter in this election.
In 2012, both campaigns have deeply integrated their social media teams into the core of their political efforts. President Obama’s “Romnesia” speech provides a great case study. Almost immediately after “Romnesia” was uttered, the Obama campaign went to work tweeting, Facebooking, and Tumblring the line in an attempt to make it stick. The effort led to more than 565,000 YouTube views of the speech and, two weeks later, #Romnesia is still tweeted dozens of times a day.
The Romney campaign is on the same page. Mitt Romney’s digital director, Zac Moffatt, told me in early October that, as opposed to 2008, the digital element of the campaign is now totally integrated. Moffatt then brought our discussion back to the ground game. Compared with the same point in 2008, he said, the campaign knocked on three times as many doors and made six times as many phone calls. “All of this is to show that what we are doing online is driving offline action,” he said via a phone interview.
2. Individual Influence on the Rise
After resigning from the Romney campaign in May, Republican firebrand Richard Grenell did anything but fade into the background. Instead, he used Twitter to insert his opinion into some of the most important discussions of the election. Frequently mentioning and eliciting responses from Obama campaign staff and the press, Grenell turned himself into one of Romney’s most outspoken and noticeable loyalists.
Priorities: CIA denied request to help In Libya, DNC Spokesman tweeting about the size of Romney’s crowds. #PanicOnLine1
<a href="https://twitter.com/mattortega">mattortega</a></p>— Richard Grenell (RichardGrenell) October 26, 2012
In prior campaign cycles, Grenell likely would have faded into blogging oblivion, preaching his gospel to a small choir. But in 2012, Twitter’s widespread use and connectivity have helped him stay relevant. Grenell is just one of many individuals who have used Twitter to influence the political discourse.
Another interesting application can be found in the rise of parody accounts. As we’ve seen during the conventions (@InvisibleObama) and debates (@FiredBigBird, etc.), if you jump on a trend and get the tone just right, you can find yourself speaking to tens of thousands of people in a matter of hours. It’s no wonder then that Brian Stelter of The New York Times described Twitter as a “megaphone like they’ve never had before.”
3. Viral Politics
Cute cats and honey badgers are not the only things that go viral on the Internet. Politics do, too. Over the course of the last few months, political stories and memes have spread across the web faster than you can say “Old Spice.”
Yes, much of the buzz has emanated from fake Twitter accounts like @InvisibleObama, but coverage of certain political events has boomed across the web as well. It’s telling that BuzzFeed, a website specializing in that which is viral, hired Ben Smith, a political blogger, as its editor in chief. They recognized then what we know now: The thirst to consume and share political news on the social web outweighs any reservations to not “talk politics” on it.
4. For Third-Party Candidates, This is Just the Beginning
When the election ends on November 6, third-party candidates will have a treasure trove of Facebook and Twitter followers (if not votes). That’s a big deal for people like Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson who will be able to keep pushing his message long after the votes are tallied.
Thank you to our Twitter followers for spreading
<a href="https://twitter.com/govgaryjohnson">govgaryjohnson</a>'s message of <a href="https://twitter.com/search/%23liberty">#liberty</a>. We are now 100,000 strong. <a href="http://t.co/K1frNt33" title="http://twitter.com/GovGaryJohnson/status/262229511427485696/photo/1">twitter.com/GovGaryJohnson...</a></p>— Gov. Gary Johnson (GovGaryJohnson) October 27, 2012
Johnson told me in an interview that he plans to personally engage his social community once the election ends.
“The momentum doesn’t stop,” Johnson said in an interview. “Our intention is not to stop; our intention is to stay engaged.” This past weekend, Johnson’s campaign hit 100,000 followers on Twitter. They should be ready to hear more from Johnson as he attempts to advance his cause post-election day.
5. Measurement is a Problem
The political world is starting to find out what the social marketing community already knows — measuring social media is very difficult. Pundits trying to figure out which campaign is “winning” the social media battle have gone through a number of metrics, only to find them all lacking. Follower count doesn’t work because it doesn’t take engagement into account. Engagement doesn’t work because it doesn’t take sentiment into account. Sentiment doesn’t work without taking volume, engagement, geography, etc., into account as well.
“Measurement is a mess,” Sam Arbesman, a fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, said during a discussion on the topic. As a result of the confusion, both sides are claiming social media victory. On the bright side, at least this dispute will stay out of Florida Supreme Court.
6. The Meme Election
If you don’t remember what a soundbite is, don’t worry, I don’t either. Starting with this election, the most memorable political moments won’t be made-for-TV one-liners, but rather made-for-Tumblr gaffes. The most talked-about moment of the second presidential debate, for instance, was Romney’s “binders full of women” line. Moments after the words left his lips, the Photoshop-wielding legions of the Internet went to work mocking up all sorts of comical scenes and scenarios playing off the line.
The public now expects this form of satire, and their willingness to share what they see plays a big role in memes’ ability to spread across the Internet. For those labeling this trend as the end of enlightened political discourse, just remember that 31 percent of Americans say they at least sometimes get their news from late-night talk shows, according to Pew. In a sense, these memes are an instant form of SNL or “The Daily Show.”
7. Live-GIFing Flops
For a short time, Live-GIFing was the hot new form of political commentary. During the debates, both Tumblr and the Guardian published a stream of the animated images in an attempt to offer a unique form of debate commentary. The commentary was unique, but also offered little value for those keeping the GIF streams open while the debate went on. In the GIFers’ defense, they didn’t have much to work with, just two men onstage talking politics. There is likely still a place for the GIF in politics, but the debate live-GIF seems to be a dud.
8. Twitter Rocks for Political Journalists
I have found Twitter to be the single most valuable tool in my coverage of the 2012 election. Granted, I have been covering the digital end of the election, so of course Twitter plays a role. But there’s no better place to get story ideas and watch the campaigns spar than the real-time connective environment that is the Twitterverse.
Some of my best (and most well-read) stories came from things I saw first on Twitter and then decided to write about with further confirmation from the outside world. Not to mention, a Twitter introduction is the reason why I’m writing this right now, so it’s safe to say I’m bullish on the medium.
While it would be reckless to suggest this election might turn on account of a few well crafted tweets, it is also increasingly difficult to deny social media’s role in it. Believe it or not, Twitter is just six years old and Facebook only eight. That’s something to think about next week as someone at your election night get together reads the latest results off their smartphone faster than Wolf Blitzer announces them on television.
Alex Kantrowitz is a New York City based journalist covering the digital marketing side of politics for Forbes.com. His writing has previously appeared in Fortune and The New York Times’ Local Blog. Follow Alex on Twitter at @Kantrowitz.