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The GOP and the social media numbers game

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Brands & Campaigns

Today’s SmartBrief on Social Media links to an insightful post by Julian Sanchez of Ars Technica about what social media tools might do for the Republican Party. It’s just one post in what’s become a ranging and divergent argument about the GOP’s future.

Clearly there was a Facebook gap, a Twitter gap and an SMS gap between the Democratic and Republican campaigns in 2008, but it’s unlikely that it was dispositive in terms of the outcome. But to hear some of the candidates for GOP party chair, social media is a numbers game. In Dana MIlbank’s Washington Sketch column from Tuesday, he quotes rivals for the chairmanship jousting over how many social media contacts they have. (For the record, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell says he has about 4,000 while Michigan Republicans chairman Saul Anuzis says he’s got between 2,000 and 3,000 Facebook friends; Anuzis is also reportedly an indefatigable Twitterer.)

But this numbers game misses the point — it’s much more likely that the Republican Party was not in a good position to leverage the latest networking tools not from lack of savvy, but from lack of message.

It’s important to remember here that the seeds of the social media movement that the Obama candidacy exploited were planted with Howard Dean’s ill-fated primary run in 2004 and with the rise of activist groups like The message of “Change” that formed the basis of the Obama campaign had already been field-tested and adopted over the course of more than four years of online political work by activist Democrats and people outside the party.

Is it possible that the same grassroots are already entrenched on the right side of the political spectrum?

Any search of the blogosphere (sometimes laughably called “the left-wing blogosphere” by right-leaning pundits) will show a great deal of activity by conservatives of every stripe — social conservatives, economic conservatives, religious conservatives and even plain old GOP party faithful. Indeed the Web site Free Republic was a haven for online Clinton bashing during the go-go days of Web 1.0. To judge by its forum activity, it’s still going strong. Republican Ron Paul, similarly, raised an incredible amount of money for a candidate whose views were so far outside his party’s mainstream. He did this, and attracted large audiences to his public appearances through viral email and online appeals.

While it’s not likely that a social networking revolution will emanate from the national office of the Republican Party, it would be surprising indeed if the next GOP presidential candidate won the party’s nomination without making full use of a full suite of social networking tools. All the motivation needed to spur such a grassroots movement will arrive on Jan. 20, 2008, when a Democrat is sworn in as President of the United States.