For decades, Iowans have said their important role in selecting presidential nominees is justified because they get personally engaged with the candidates, look them in the eye, size them up and render their yea or nay verdict.
This election cycle may be different.
The candidates leading in Iowa are not those who have visited the state most often; in fact, those candidates are at the bottom of the heap. Instead, the GOP leaders in Iowa are those who have used social media – Facebook, Twitter and other platforms – most effectively.
The leaders in Iowa polls: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.
The leaders in social media: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.
“We’re going to see how big social media is on caucus day,” said Chris Snider, an instructor of multimedia at Drake University in Des Moines, who studied the candidates’ presence and influence on social media and compared that with their rankings in the polls.
“Four hundred million people log into Facebook each day, and if candidates can get you to like them there, the more likely you are to go out and caucus for them on Jan. 3. Whatever it takes to get you to click that ‘like' button is what candidates need to be doing right now,” Snider said.
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Experts differ about what, if any, reaction social media popularity has on standings in the polls. But it is clear that a number of candidates have made a strong social media presence a key part of grassroots campaigning. In some cases, it seems to have replaced the traditional boots-on-the-ground approach.
Romney Appears Most Invested in Social Media
In his study, Snider looked at 17 different measures of social media success – both in terms of popularity (the amount of reach for each candidate) and engagement (how well candidates used the tools). The results mirrored recent national polls, the study found.
Romney provides the starkest example of how standings in social media correlate with rankings in the polls heading into Iowa's January 3 caucuses.
Romney has visited Iowa only eight times this election cycle, the fewest number among all the major candidates. Yet, he has consistently been atop the field among likely Iowa caucus goers.
As of Nov. 22, the Romney campaign's Facebook page had almost 1.2 million "likes." Ron Paul comes in a not-so-close second, at just over 594,000 "likes."
The number of social media sites the Romney campaign incorporates into its message is also a leader among candidates. Snider said Romney is using five digital venues: Facebook, Twitter, Google +, YouTube and Flickr, a photo-sharing website.
“He’s using more tools than anyone else,” Snider said. “When you consider those five are the main social media platforms people are using, he’s the only one saying up front to follow him in all five places.”
Lagging behind in the use of social media are candidates Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman. Coincidentally or not, these two candidates have also been last in Iowa polls.
Over on Twitter, Newt Gingrich is effectively running away with the lead with more than 1.3 million followers. Herman Cain comes in second at 164,000. Both candidates have led some polls in the country.
Gingrich’s fan base has been around awhile, many of his followers from before this election, so they can't be linked as closely to this race, Snider said.
Cain, on the other hand, has the fastest-growing fan base on social media. As of Nov. 13, Cain gained more than 47,000 new Twitter followers in a 30-day time period, more than any other candidate. He also showed more than 99,000 new likes on Facebook compared to Romney's 43,000.
"Cain is playing catch-up, so you're going to see a big boost from him right now," Snider said.
At least one political expert cites the chicken-or-egg dilemma when assessing the effectiveness of social media.
Dennis Goldford, an independent political analyst and political science professor at Drake University, said there are too many other political factors in play to put too much stock in social media success.
"We don't know which way the arrow goes — are they popular in the polls because they're doing well on social media, or are they popular on social media because they're doing well in the polls?" Goldford said. "I don't think it's that simple."
Why Social Media is Important
But these two social media juggernauts aren’t the only venues gaining popularity.
In 2008, Foursquare did not exist. In three years it has soared to 10 million users. YouTube, a site where anyone can post self-produced video, averages close to 48 hours of video uploaded per minute.
Nathan Wright, founder of Lava Row, a digital media education and consulting firm in Des Moines, said Iowans use social media in ways similar to others around the globe.
“We use social media in a variety of ways, but it's up to the individual (on what they use it for),” Wright said. “Iowa follows the same patterns of global adoption of technology, so it makes sense for the candidates to be on these platforms for political messaging.”
Wright said many Iowans also are using social media this election to spread the word about their candidate of choice.
“More and more, they are using these tools to rally their friends, family and other like-minded voters around issues that are meaningful to them,” Wright said. “Each individual differs."
When Google + opened to businesses earlier this month, Romney was the first to jump on the bandwagon. He hosted a Google + chat and did a "hangout" with Fox News. Any Google + user could join the conversation. Romney also buys ads on Twitter, so when users search his name on the site, the first thing they will see is the message he wants you to see.
What Candidates Should be Doing with Social Media
Candidates are using social media to reach voters in many different ways. Their platforms act as an informational source and increase name recognition. Social media also is used as a fundraising tool.
“Right now, it's fundraising on a micro level,” Wright said. “The (Barack) Obama campaign was spectacular at doing this, and candidates on both sides now model after this, encouraging voters to give money in smaller amounts via communication tools such as SMS, email and social networks.”
Wright said social media has become a method of affordable advertisement for candidates.
Above all, engagement is key for candidates using social media. The biggest thing candidates can do to reach their target audience is to simply listen.
“It’s about being on there, seeing what people have to say and responding to them,” Snider said.
Going viral is also key, he said, citing an example in which Ron Paul's campaign asked fans to change their Facebook profile picture to a photo of Ron Paul for a day.
"If I change my profile picture and share why I did it, then four of my friends might do the same and so on," Snider said. "This has the potential to go viral."
Regardless, Snider says we’re not going to see the good stuff until after a GOP candidate is chosen.
“We’ll start to see iPhone apps and other things like that,” he said. “Some of the best things really are yet to come.”
Is Social Media Replacing Grassroots Campaigning in Iowa?
Goldford says social media isn't replacing face-to-face meetings with voters.
"Iowans still wants to see feet on the ground," he said.
Goldford said social media may give the illusion of candidates creating a personal connection with voters in non-primary states, where the opportunities to meet candidates face-to-face just aren't there.
"In this case, social media becomes very much a tool to communicate and motivate supporters," Goldford said. "In Iowa, (social media) helps but since we're so used to talking and seeing their faces, it may not make as big of a difference here as it would in a state where they don't get that."
“You’re going to reach all ages on social media, but the people who use it the most and trust it to give them what they need to make an informed decision is the younger audience,” Snider said. “That being said, candidates should not solely rely on it.”
And a recent Des Moines Register poll found that could be significant.
Older Iowans appear less likely to participate in the Republican caucuses than they did in 2008 when 27 percent of those who turned out were age 65 and older, according to entrance polling. In contrast, the recent Register poll found 14 percent in that age range expect to participate in the 2012 caucus.
The Iowa caucuses are January 3. Patch will provide live coverage of the results as the come in.
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