You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Newt Gingrich's Online Surge: Will It Be Enough to Win?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 22 2011

A little more than half a year ago, at the beginning of March, I took a look at Newt Gingrich's presence online. As one of the longest-serving politicians in the presidential race, and a self-described geek, Newt had a big digital footprint even before he started formally campaigning. Now that he's been at it for a while, and as he's currently benefiting from a surge of interest and support among likely Republican primary voters, it's possible to see what--if anything--running for president can do to a politician's online presence, and vice versa.

First off, running for president hasn't changed Newt's standing in Google search. Newt.org still comes up first and his Wikipedia page third, with a little salamander sandwiched in between. One thing that has changed in Newt's favor since last spring is how Google autocompletes searches on his name. Back in the spring, the top suggested search phrases, based on what people were searching for, were "Newt Gingrich books" then "…EPA," then "2012," "website" and "affair." Now it's "bio," "wiki," "twitter" and "Contract with America." No mention of "affair" anywhere.

Running for president seems to be helping generate interest in Newt's website and social network presence online, but not as much as one might think. While his homepage, Newt.org, is seeing a healthy jump in traffic, after collapsing between June and August, third-party data suggests this shift is not all that impressive. Compete.com estimates that Newt.org got 153,000 unique visitors in October, compared to 274,000 for RonPaul2012.com, 207,000 for MittRomney.com, 150,000 for MicheleBachmann.com, and 72,000 for RickPerry.org,. That's not bad for Gingrich, but it's hardly close to the 945,000 unique visits HermanCain.com got in October, while he was peaking, or the 500,000 that Bachmann got at her campaign's height back in May.

Compete doesn't have data posted for November yet, so it's possible Gingrich is seeing a surge. But if Facebook is any indication, Gingrich may not be having that fantastic a month online even as he's risen to the top in polls of likely Republican voters. On Facebook, Gingrich's base has grown 78% since last March, from 100,600 to 179,491 yesterday. In the same time frame, Romney's base has grown 57%, from 753,845 to 1,188,905. In relative terms then, Newt is hotter than Mitt, but he is also way behind in real terms. He's also got a ways to go to catch up with last month's GOP shooting star, Herman Cain, who has 389,901 likes as of now.

In terms of which presidential candidates are most being talked about on Facebook--a new metric that aims to tell us who is currently getting the most attention, rather than just accumulating a large but passive list of likes--Gingrich has inched upward in the last two weeks. As this chart maintained by Patrick Ruffini of the Republican online firm Engage shows, he's got about a 12% share, behind Cain with 29%, and Romney and Paul, who each have 21%.

This isn't just a popularity contest, by the way--if you are the Gingrich campaign and you want to run an ad on Facebook aimed at people who have already said they like you or are interested in you, the available pool is 1/5 the size of Romney's and half the size of Cain's.

The Gingrich campaign is probably less concerned about these overall trends than it is with how well it can translate online interest into on-the-ground support in the early primary fights. To that end, yesterday it unveiled a nifty single-state website called NewtHampshire.com that is, for a Republican candidate, cutting edge in its versatility. Built on Jim Gilliam's NationBuilder platform, NewtHampshire has every bell and whistle you could ask for: user profiles, badges to reward volunteer activity, tracking links so users can monitor their own progress recruiting others, event hosting tools, and a public leaderboard to spur activity. It's all very cool--and it's all coming into play less than two months before the primary.

And that's the rub. While this year's Republican primary has been unusually volatile, it takes time to build strong local campaign organizations in primary states like New Hampshire, where many voters expect to be courted personally by the candidates. An online social network for Gingrich in the Granite State could help him in that effort, but it's pretty late for him to just be getting started. On the other hand, we only have to look back at Scott Brown's meteoric rise in the Massachusetts Senate race of 2010 to recognize that online networks can supercharge a candidacy. Newt's late rise in the polls obviously bears watching; if he's going to knock Mitt Romney off his front-runner pedestal, there's a good chance we'll see the first signs of the shift take place online, where the activists that make campaigns hum congregate.