In the past, when politicians wanted to get their message out to voters, they would hold press conferences. The candidates also spent good chunks of their political war chests on advertisements in newspapers and on television and radio stations. The idea was that those paid or unpaid pronouncements would flow to voters. But now that so many people are surfing the Internet daily for information, politicians are riding that popular wave and setting precedents as they do it.
Earlier this year, Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich made Ohio history by being the first to announce his running mate, state Auditor Mary Taylor, on Twitter. Not to be outdone, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland made history of his own by being the first gubernatorial candidate in the state to announce his running mate, former Franklin County Court of Common Please Judge Yvette McGee Brown, on the popular website YouTube. It’s important to note that shortly after making those unique announcements, both men held traditional news conferences to talk about their choices. Yet, there’s no doubt that Kasich, Strickland and other candidates running for office are using Twitter, Facebook and e-mails more often these days to reach potential voters.
All of this doesn’t surprise Kelly Bell. She’s a social media strategist in Columbus who teaches workshops at universities
and businesses—as well as advising candidates on their social media outreach. She says the way in which President Obama harnessed support through social media, particularly when it came to younger voters, has forever altered political campaigns. “It has changed history because no person will ever grow up in the United States again without having their president as their Facebook friend,” Bell says.
She says it’s a smart move for candidates to make sure the mainstream media know about the early announcement on social networks a day ahead, as Kasich and Strickland have done. That way, the buzz can build. “People rush to sign up so that they are first to get the information,” Bell says. “And then, when they use the social media tool, now they have a huge number of people following them.” She says politicians use this connection. “It has the effect of creating a personal relationship between you and the candidate because every day they will send you a little update,” Bell says.
Kasich and Strickland aren’t the only ones embracing social media. For instance, three U.S. Senate candidates—Republican Rob Portman and Democrats Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner—also were tweeting messages to their followers regularly before the May 4 primary. Sometimes the tweets pointed followers to news articles that put the candidates or their accomplishments in a good light. Sometimes the tweets were about Ohio sports teams. “Pumped about OU victory over Georgetown! Great to see Ohioans taking on the Washington establishment,” Portman tweeted after Ohio University upset the Hoyas in the NCAA basketball tournament. And sometimes candidates used the social networking sites to influence political decisions. For example, Brunner rallied supporters to send more than 74,000 e-mails to members of the Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee, asking them not to endorse a candidate in her race. (It didn’t.)
The director of the Bliss Institute of Public Policy at the University of Akron, John Green, says the candidate’s use of social technology is the wave of the future. He says politicians are discovering that social media can help them get their messages to people without the filters that come from talking to reporters. “It’s attractive to use the new media that goes directly to voters,” he says.
Bell says social networking is a more powerful tool than traditional ads. In television and radio spots, Bell explains, candidates depend on the message itself to resonate with voters. She says they generally don’t trust those ads much because they have little or no connection to the messenger. But she notes it’s a different game when they receive messages through social media. “It’s not so much about the message itself. It’s about the person you are connecting with in a social way . . . a person you might trust who happens to work on a campaign or be a member of a company that you are interested in,” Bell says. “And if this person who you interact with socially on the Internet has a strong opinion and can back that up with some statistics, then people take those messages much more seriously. It’s the type of testimonial that gets through the barriers of mistrust that we’ve all built up in this advertising age.”
The key, she says, is to make people feel as if they are invested somehow. “You can reach a wide base of people in a way that gives you an opportunity to actually sway opinion over weeks and months as opposed to 30-second spots that are just coming at them just one way during breaks of a football game,” Bell says.
While social media might benefit politicians, it also helps Ohioans who want to streamline content to their interests. Josh Gargiulo, a Democratic legislative aide at the Statehouse, says he enjoys reading blogs about politics, but he’s found they can be hard to navigate. He says Twitter has made it easier for him to access stories on blogs. “Most of them [bloggers] are really well versed in Twitter and have used it quite well to their advantage. They will post a Twitter feed that will tell you what the story is about,” he explains. Gargiulo says in most cases he can follow that Twitter update directly to the full story on the blog. And he often does that. “Oh, my girlfriend hates me,” he jokes.
Sherri Carbo of southwest Ohio says when she went to a campaign meeting for Kasich volunteers last June, she saw Twitter in a new light. She was taught how to use her Twitter account to tweet messages about Kasich’s campaign and re-tweet or link to interesting news articles about the candidate. She’s now a volunteer who coordinates Kasich’s Warren County social utility outreach on Twitter and Facebook.
While social media does offer candidates some advantages, it is not a substitute for traditional forms of campaigning. For starters, social media has its limi-tations. Twitter, for example, allows messages that are only 140 characters or fewer. Facebook caps the number of “friends” at 5,000. Perhaps the biggest impediment is that many people still don’t use the Internet regularly, let alone social networking sites. And until everyone does that, candidates will continue to appear at many fundraisers, walk in parades, shake hands with voters and hold babies at community events. And it’s a safe bet that candidates who can afford to will still make media buys.
Candidates who purchase ads might get a better deal these days. Bell says the popularity of social media could be a major reason why the price of advertising on television nationally is down slightly. “Networks are accepting prices that have decreased 3 to 4 percent. When it comes to political advertising, each campaign has to look at its own market and what voters they need to connect to in those local markets and that’s going to vary from place to place,” she says.
As for Central Ohio, Chuck DeVendra, director of sales at WBNS-TV, isn’t worried by the slight drop in national advertising rates. He says the station had record sales during the gubernatorial race four years ago and he expects to exceed those numbers this year.
Ohio is always a battleground in elections and this year, given the contentious climate in Washington, D.C., it will be at ground zero of the political world again. Out-of-state groups are expected to funnel millions of dollars into Ohio’s races. That means politicians for governor, U.S. Senate and other major offices will have plenty of money to spend on traditional advertising. But the politicians don’t need to spend a dime to reach Josh Gargiulo or Sherri Carbo. They’ve already reached them, one tweet at a time.
Jo Ingles is a correspondent for the Ohio Public Radio/TV Statehouse News Bureau.