Nothing has changed the landscape of a political election in the last 50 years more so than the rise of the Internet. With access to information available instantaneously, campaigning is a different activity than it was a generation ago. Statements touted by politicians as facts are scrutinized, dissected, and Googled.
Today’s voters can be just as informed about a candidate’s political stances as the candidate’s advisors. Social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook have largely impacted the way a campaign is run as well. It is largely believed that the reason Barack Obama was able to win the 2008 election in such a landslide victory was that he had a strong social media presence that galvanized young people to get out and vote. From the beginning of his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, he utilized social media impressively. In 2007, before Facebook was the corporate powerhouse it’s become, President Obama was meeting with one of its board members to see if defeating two better-known candidates was possible with the right social media strategy.
Barack Obama has definitely set the tone for what level of social media-savvy this upcoming election will require. The Internet community—by no means an exclusive community these days—has shown just how loud its voice can be heard when it is passionate about an issue. To a non-Internet user at home watching the Republican primary debates back in the Spring, Rick Santorum came off as a strong social conservative who provided a “non-corporate” alternative to Mitt Romney’s “big business” campaign.
To the average Internet user, “Santorum” has two meanings. Santorum’s “Google problem”– as it’s called, was started by gay rights activist, Dan Savage. Savage, frustrated with Santorum’s anti-gay viewpoints, set out to create a duplicate definition of the presidential candidate’s last name that was synonymous with a sexual term. As the 2012 Republican primary wound down, it wasn’t difficult to see many ways in which the Santorum campaign was lacking.
One glaring way was its inability to optimize searches for Santorum to route to pages other than Dan Savage’s definition of “Santorum” until February—well after all damage possible was done. It’s not difficult to imagine why an R-rated phrase being the second Google result for a presidential candidate who is the self-proclaimed “family values” candidate seriously hurt his campaign.
Some people exhaust every dollar and resource they have in an attempt to make a video viral and they never succeed. Rick Perry wasn’t so lucky. When he uploaded a campaign ad called “Strong” for the often-harsh commenters of Youtube to see, he essentially put a nail in what many felt was a quickly dying Republican primary campaign.
The ad consists of Perry walking in a field and essentially declaring his disdain for separation of church and state as well as criticizing the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The infamous video has over eight million views on Youtube and a measly 26,000 likes to its 773,000 dislikes. The outrage and biting criticisms made by Youtube commenters caused the Perry campaign to eventually disable all discussion on the video’s page.
Without the internet, Perry may have just faded into obscurity after dropping out of the 2012 Republican primary. Instead, he is now a continued recipient of ridicule from the online community. After returning to Texas post-primary run, Perry set out on a mission to cut the Texas Women’s Health program and women throughout the country—not just Texas—set out to voice their displeasure on his Facebook wall. The last two weeks of March contained almost no Facebook posts on Rick Perry’s wall that weren’t facetious and related to women’s menstrual cycles or ovarian health. The Texas governor had been completely over-taken by angry women. If these women intended to make a strong point, they certainly succeeded.
If there are any negative ramifications for Perry’s initial action that prompted the verbal attacks—and I predict there will be, nobody will ever forget who signed it into law. The Internet has brought with it an era of permanency. Voters do not shake their heads and throw the newspaper out the next day when a candidate publicly “fumbles” on the campaign trail.
Ron Paul arguably ran the best social media campaign of any Republican candidate in the 2012 primaries. Paul, an ardent supporter of Internet privacy, was on the Reddit front page as well as my Twitter feed just about every day. However, I saw less signs for Paul in the physical world than I did any other primary candidate. Just like some politicians’ online campaigns are not up to par with their traditional campaign, Paul fell victim to the opposite danger. Mitt Romney, the current Republican presidential candidate, managed to make it out of the primaries relatively unscathed in terms of internet blunders in comparison to Santorum and Perry. He and President Obama are just beginning what will very likely be an intense war of social media savvy. Both candidates have the financial resources necessary to run flawless campaigns, but their strategies will be what sets one apart from the other.
The Internet played a key role in swaying the last election and there are few people who would argue it won’t continue to do so. So few, in fact, that Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies is dedicating an entire class to analyzing the social media campaigns of the 2012 presidential election. You can follow along with the hashtag “#ElectionClass” come Fall.