Could social media win a campaign?

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Would it be possible for candidates to rely on social media alone?  Does social media have the ability to propel candidates into public consciousness enough to be elected to local, statewide or even national office?

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, that “a new generation of politicians will prove that they can win on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and blog sites, rather than with corporate-financed TV ads.  By lowering the cost of political campaigning, the free social media can liberate Washington from the current state of endemic corruption.”

Will that happen?  Not in the near future.

In 2008, media accounted for more than half of President Obama’s campaign expenses.  He spent $26.5 million on internet related media (advertising, staff, web design, etc).  He spent almost ten times that – $244.4 million – on television.

Even with internet usage rising, television is king.  According to Pew Research, 67% of adults get campaign news from TV, which is unchanged from a decade ago.  Political commercials are just as prevalent as they have always been.  In politics, prevalence often equals effectiveness.  The more voters meet a candidate, the more likely they are to vote for that candidate.  The same theory applies to commercials.

Since 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower made a series of “Eisenhower Answers America” spots, commercials have been a part of our politics.  They have only increased in frequency and scope since Ike.  Ask anyone in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or other battleground states how often McCain or Obama ads popped up last time around.  Especially in Florida, where almost half the voters in 2008 were over 50, television still matters much more than the internet.

Yes, senior citizens are online.  However, compared with 86% of 18 to 29 year olds who use social networks, usage among those over 65 is only 26%.  That number has increased in the past few years.  And it is likely to go up, based on past trends and the fact that, one day, today’s 29 year olds will be 65.

Twitter is becoming the social networking medium of choice.  Elected officials and candidates are using it to relay information directly to supporters, without the filter of TV.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has 15,000 followers on Twitter.  Our Senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have 21,000 and 27,000, respectively.  Mitt Romney, the likely candidate against President Obama, has 165,000.  The President has 11,000,000 followers.  But that’s only a fraction of the 69,000,000 people who elected him.

Social media creates a more targeted universe than television could ever accomplish.  But Twitter – just like Facebook – is used by people who actively choose to read what select people say.  Twitter followers are engaged in the process and may already have their minds made up.  Compare that to TV – a passive audience – where everyone watching is a potential vote.

Candidates and third party groups will not stop pouring money into TV ads until the number of people who watch TV is greatly eclipsed by social media or other means of communication.

It would be very interesting to see an all social media campaign for national office.  But that campaign is not now.

In the meantime, my Twitter name is @RossWallenstein.