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How Social Media Is Keeping the GOP Primary Going

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, February 28 2012

The home page of 160,000 member FreedomConnector.com. (Red is events, yellow is groups, blue is profiles.)

"Despite the increasing importance of social media in business, there is no solid evidence that it matters in politics," writes Gregory Ferenstein in AdAgeDigital in a lengthy article titled "Waiting for the 'Twitter Election?' Keep Waiting." His proof?
--"Internet heavyweight Ron Paul hasn't won a single primary."
--Mitt Romney's huge lead among Facebook fans (1.5 million to Paul's 869,000 and Rick Santorum's 149,000) didn't prevent him from losing the last three primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.
--Tea Party belle Sharron Angle had seven times as many Facebook fans as Senator Harry Reid, but that didn't keep her from losing 50-45% in their 2010 race.
--"On the internet, no one knows you didn't vote"--that is, social network connections are far weaker in motivating people to vote than face-to-face contact
--Young people, who are the most intense social media users, are the least likely people to vote and far more likely to engage in other kinds of participation, like "pitching tents in Occupy protests, sharing 'I've Got a Crush on Obama' [videos] and volunteering in their neighborhoods."

Ferenstein has a point. The mainstream media definitely over-hypes factoids like how many followers a candidate has on Twitter or Facebook, and those companies are all too happy to keep getting that simplistic coverage. As I wrote back in January, "we're getting tired of stories or services claiming to find a clear correlation between chatter on Twitter or Facebook and the fortunes of the candidates running for president of the United States." And knocking on doors is the most effective way of getting out the vote (plus timely reminders from people who know you).

But politics isn't only about voting; it's more deeply about organizing to get and keep power. And the evidence that social media is helping organized groups get more power--sometimes more than their raw numbers might get them at the ballot box--is staring us in the face. Exhibit A: the current Republican presidential primary.

Why isn't the primary over? Mitt Romney "won" Iowa and he definitely won New Hampshire, which in the past was enough to get party leaders and members to close ranks behind the frontrunner. Obviously he's a relatively weak candidate, but he's not that much weaker than Bob Dole, who in 1996 won Iowa, narrowly lost New Hampshire, briefly battled challenges from Patrick Buchanan and Steve Forbes, and then rapidly won almost every contest from late February forward.

Three factors have changed the contours of the GOP contest in this cycle, I would argue. First, the never-ending series of TV debates--21 in all so far--which not only pull candidates and their senior teams away from retail politicking and towards mass media politicking, but have the effect of leveling the playing field for at least three and sometimes four contenders. Gingrich in particular has benefited from this dynamic. Second, the rise of SuperPacs and billionaire donors like Sheldon Adelson and Foster Freiss, whose injections of huge sums of cash in support of Gingrich and Santorum, respectively, have enabled them to get a second- and maybe even third-life after weak showings in early battles.

But the third factor, which hasn't gotten nearly enough attention, is the way that social media and social networking is empowering many more conservative voters and activists who care passionately about certain issues, enabling them to create strong factions within the Republican electorate that are less controllable by party leaders. This isn't just the Ron Paul story, by the way. As Martin Avila, the conservative online strategist who worked on Paul's 2008 web campaign, said to me last Thursday on the PDPlus call:

The pundits are completely stumped as to what's going on. They say Romney's got it locked up, and then everything just changes. I think that's a real consequence of what is happening online with the conservative movement. Up until this cycle, conservative grassroots activists haven't been online as much. On the left that happened a long time ago. Ron Paul was the start, then you had the Tea Party movement, and now you have the evangelicals on Facebook, on Twitter, discussing things on FreedomConnector.

If all you do is look at how many followers a candidate has to their own Facebook or Twitter profile, you'll miss a lot of this picture. Consider, for example:

-On Facebook, there are dozens of groups devoted to Santorum, including one for every state. Most are closed (you have to ask to join, which means these are trying to be real organizing hubs), and they've each got anywhere from a handful to hundreds of members. Gingrich supporters on Facebook are similarly distributed. These kinds of groups have social capital that can't be turned off from above.

-FreedomConnector.com, an open social network for conservatives (built by Avila) that launched a year ago at CPAC, has more than 168,000 users who are largely beyond the control of any Republican organization, even Freedom Works which runs the site. You can see from the regular polls done on the site, that Paul, Santorum and Gingrich are all benefiting from passionate support bases that refuse to compromise on their beliefs. Local groups that reinforce each others' beliefs are not as easily controlled as national groups with big top-down email lists. There are nearly 7,000 groups on FreedomConnector and they've organized more than 2,000 events using the site.

-In addition to billionaire Foster Freiss, Santorum is being lifted by an outpouring of small donors--more than 100,000 in February alone, his campaign says. On Fundly, a social fundraising site, the Rick Santorum page has nearly 3,000 donors who have built personal fundraising pages generating an average of about $80 each. By contrast, Romney has two donors who have created personal fundraising pages on the site, one of whom is his son Tagg.

-And let us not forget the broad-based network that has grown up around Ron Paul, making him a much more viable contender than he'd be if it were up to elite gatekeepers from the media to the national GOP, who tend to view him as a wacko. The DailyPaul.com, a hub for Paul supporters, is getting 250,000 unique visitors a month, according to Compete.com. On the RonPaulForums, another hub for volunteers which is currently getting about 100,000 unique visitors a month, there are literally hundreds of people active on the site at any given moment.

The list goes on. As Clay Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, "Social tools don’t create collective action--they merely remove the obstacles to it." The fracturing of the Republican base is a natural by-product to the emergence of more lateral, networked activity by grassroots activists reinforcing each other. Or, as Avila put it to me last week, "Broadbased, issue-focused, principled factions within the party have a much stronger voice."

So, when someone says, social media isn't changing politics, think again. Right before our eyes, the power balance within the Republican coalition is being remade. And some part of that is due to grassroots conservatives using social networking.

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