Voters, candidates engage online

Obama has the sixth-most followers on Twitter, ahead of Oprah but behind Justin Bieber.

by Bryna Godar

In the last 100 years, presidential campaigning has evolved from radio to TV to the Internet.

Social media platforms now allow candidates and voters to interact more directly and broadly than ever before.

Twitter drives people to immediate action; Facebook allows deeper social interaction; campaign websites provide interactive tools; Tumblr allows users to share funny clips or campaign slogans.

 “Social media platforms obviously create an interactive channel that does kind of confound traditional ways of political communication,” said Seth Lewis, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota with an emphasis on social media and digital culture.

President Barack Obama’s Twitter account ranks sixth among those with the most followers, placing him above the likes of Taylor Swift and Oprah Winfrey.

The “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit, a social news site, is the most recent development in voter-candidate interaction. Obama, libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., have all hosted open question-and-answer sessions on the site.

“It gives the candidates an opportunity to engage with people in a new kind of way,” Lewis said.

College students spend significantly more time on the Internet than other media, according to a 2007 survey by Burst Media.

Of Internet users age 18-29, 86 percent use social media, according to research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“I think our campaign is all about talking to voters where they are,” said Jake Levy-Pollans, Minnesota digital director of the organization Obama for America.

He said digital communication is just another form of connecting with voters, “just like knocking on their doors or giving them a call.”

Minnesota Communications Director of Obama for America Kristin Sosanie said people start tuning out the “white noise” of political advertising and seek out things they’re interested in.

Online resources allow voters to specifically research issues that will affect them.

“[Digital content] really gives us a whole new way to reach out to people on the issues that they’re concerned about.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney does not have a campaign office in Minnesota.

Obama vs. Romney

Comparing the number of followers on Facebook and Twitter, Obama has a significant lead over Romney.

Lewis said this can be attributed to the fact that Obama has been on social media and in the public eye for longer than Romney.

He said it also could stem from the popularity of social media among their support bases.

Among voters ages 18-29, 64 percent said they would vote for Obama, 29 percent for Romney, according to an April Gallup poll. Romney, conversely, has the edge among older voters.

Lewis said that social media usage between age groups is not clear-cut, but the trend is toward younger groups.

 “Because young people are more accustomed to using social media as a primary mode of communication, then it naturally follows that their political activities are more likely to be connected with those same places where they hang out online,” Lewis said.

Sosanie said older generations prefer face-to-face or phone conversations but high school students mostly prefer texting or tweeting.

Future of elections

Lewis said that every four years, people want to label the election as being “the Internet election” and many want to brand this year as “the social media election.”

 “No doubt, social media has a key role to play in today’s politics, but it’s a bit unclear exactly how it’s connected precisely with patterns of voting and political engagement.”

Sosanie said digital gives the campaign a whole new way to reach out to people on the issues they’re concerned about.

“There’s no secret to our strategy: It’s to involve as many people as possible,” Sosanie said, “and digital is a huge way that we’re doing that.”