Will social media influence presidential elections?

It’s election time, and the tweets are flying fast and furious. The second presidential debate alone generated 7.2 million posts with traffic spiking at 109,000 messages per minute (the Twitter count for the third debate was slightly lower).

And it’s not just Twitter: On Facebook, Barack Obama has 31 million likes and Mitt Romney has 10 million, the last time I checked.

The use of social media is quickly becoming “a feature of political and civic engagement for many Americans,” as reported in a Pew study published last week. The study found that 39 percent of all American adults claimed to have engaged in at least one of eight civic or political activities via social media.

The 2008 presidential election was the first to tap into online tools, and the Obama team was generally considered to have dominated the online campaign last time around.

Back then, platforms like Twitter and YouTube didn’t factor into the mix, but the current presidential race has really brought the power of social media to bear on the country’s top race.

Both campaigns are taking online engagement seriously, and the Obama campaign is said to have a staff of 150 people dedicated to it.

While it’s easy to quantify the volume of election-related social media, it’s harder to calculate its value for the candidates.

While monitoring the stream of tweets can give a general idea of the tone of the conversation occurring on Twitter and Facebook, we don’t really have the tools to quantify trends and are still in the drinking-from-a-firehose mode.

“There's no breakdown on sentiment. It’s just measuring quantity,” said David Almacy, senior vice president, digital strategies, Edelman PR, and former White House Internet and e-communications director under former President George W. Bush.

Almacy spoke on a panel about social media and the presidential election at the Public Relations Society of America’s International Conference in San Francisco last week. The other panel participants included Joe Garofoli, a national political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Lawrence Parnell, public relations program director and associate professor at The Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.

So aside from the fact that volume’s been turned way up, what else do we know about the elections and social media?

According to Pew, users who talk about politics regularly are more active on social media for civic or political purposes. Frequent users are also more ideological — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Generally, the most active are younger, and these users are more likely to post their own thoughts about issues, post links to political material, encourage others to take political action, belong to a political group on a social networking site, follow elected officials on social media, and “like” or promote political material others have posted, according to the Pew study.

Social media gives individuals the power to start and drive conversations online with many people, though those conversations are usually about news events that already occurred. In other words, social media is amplifying events rather than displacing the news, Parnell said.

Case in point: Social media spiked on certain sound bites during the debates, like Romney’s “binders full of women” comment (which has its own Facebook page with 12,000 members).

Furthermore, most of the distribution is being done by individuals, not the parties, and more traffic doesn’t necessarily translate into increased political knowledge, Parnell said.

But social media has been effective at raising money — in small amounts that add up. And it does allow for targeted organizing. For example, the Obama campaign can query lists to every woman over a certain age to rally against Romney speaking points, or send a personalized message to male voters from Michael Bloomberg, Garofoli noted.

Overall, for the presidential campaigns, social media is pushing content rather than engaging individuals in a dialogue. Almacy said the Romney camp is doing a slightly better job at engagement, even if their volume is lower.

Will social media make a difference in this presidential election?

“It's an organizational tool,” Garofoli said. “There have been lots of campaigns with a good digital presence but the campaign stinks. Ron Paul had an excellent online presence, for example. Meg Whitman had a great online campaign. But she lost by 10 points to Jerry Brown, whose online presence was bad.”

Schmid is the managing partner of Cook + Schmid, a San Diego-based marketing and public relations firm. Follow him on Twitter @jschmidpr, or read his blog at

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