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Posted on 10.16.2012

Social Media: Changing the Campaign Trail

As we near Election Day, and as a former political campaign manager, I find myself being reminiscent of days on the campaign trail. I was reading Tweets and Facebook posts after the recent vice presidential debate when it dawned on me how much campaigning has changed in the last three presidential elections. Today the cost of producing a political campaign is higher, the campaign season is longer and social media has forever changed the communications strategy of accumulating votes.

The biggest change for politicians on the trail has come in the form of communicating their messages. Typically, a message was formulated and crafted into a grassroots campaign that started in the community and branched out volunteers for the campaign who knocked on doors and asked for votes. Small events were orchestrated in community members' homes to raise awareness and funds for campaigns. Today, politicians have maximized their Web presence through online fundraising, Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts.

In 2000, John McCain introduced online fundraising into the mainstream, but it was the 2010 senatorial race in Massachusetts when Scott Brown showed how to really harness the technology, by raising $12 million from 157,000 online donors. Some may say that his success was rooted in the ease of supporting a campaign through an online donation.

Grassroots campaigns have become Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts, allowing candidates to reach a mass audience, calculated to be approximately 136 million people, with just a few strokes of the keyboard. Social media has connected people all over the world, and politically it has enabled groups of people to quickly mobilize town hall meetings or Tea Party gatherings all over the country.

Candidates have taken the good old-fashioned press conference to the online realm as well by announcing major campaign news via social media. President Obama was the first to announce his run for the White House by web video. Mitt Romney's campaign made the vice presidential running mate announcement through a downloadable application called "Who Will Be Mitt's VP?"

If you have not had a chance to do so yet, take a look at the two current presidential candidates' Facebook pages. President Obama's page has more than 30,845,000 likes and Mitt Romney's has more than 9,393,000.

Another unique aspect of using social media on the campaign trail is that it allows candidates to share a more personal side of themselves and a behind-the-scenes look at the political process. Ron Paul's Facebook page was an excellent example of this during his presidential run. Herman Cain allowed constituents to communicate with him directly by creating the Twitter hashtag caincast.

Social media has also had a direct impact on campaign strategy. Facebook pages can be used to introduce or "test" a campaign idea, and the number of "likes" can be a raw indicator of how the message is perceived. Now that GPS is a built-in component of most social media applications, campaign strategists can see where there are large or small pockets of supporters in order to "mobilize the troops."

The real-time communication available through social media requires campaigns to respond to scrutiny and criticism on a much faster timeline. Quotes and sound bites can be retweeted and shared in a matter of seconds, creating a never-ending stream of political noise.

Our use of social media today continues to grow and change the face of communication on a daily basis. Users have so many choices from which they can hand-pick their news and what information is being streamed. As we get closer to Election Day, how do you find yourself engaging politically through social media?

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