News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

January 9, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Social politics

Networking websites offer candidates chance to be your friend

TERRE HAUTE — The next mayor of Terre Haute could be your friend.

Even if the two of you have never met.

That’s the surreal nature of political campaigns in the Facebook era. The good ol’ boy network meets the social network.

As Terre Haute prepares for its most high-profile election, the race for mayor, Facebook is adding a new dimension to a process that hasn’t changed much in more than a century. Candidates can survey citizens — those who are “friends” or “fans” of their Facebook page — about issues and priorities. Likewise, Average Joes and Janes can pose questions to the candidates. Rallies can be promoted. Position statements can be posted as videos. Funds can be solicited.

“Friendships” can be forged, albeit in cyberspace, all quite quickly.

“All of these tools will be new this time around,” Darrel Zeck, director of public affairs for Mayor Duke Bennett’s administration, said early Thursday evening.

Bennett has not yet officially announced that he’ll seek re-election. But the first-term Republican launched his Mayor Duke Bennett Facebook page last autumn “in anticipation of the campaign,” he said Thursday. A formal announcement should come in the next two weeks, and Bennett said that step likely will include a same-day statement on the mayor’s Facebook page.

Bennett did not have a Facebook page in 2007 when he defeated incumbent mayor Kevin Burke.

The impact of social networks already has been felt in the 2011 race. In the last 60 hours of 2010, Democrat candidate Fred Nation raised $13,000 for his mayoral campaign through e-mails and his Fred Nation for Mayor Facebook page. “That really astounded me with its effectiveness,” Nation said last week.

People throughout the Wabash Valley may have received Facebook “friend requests” from political candidates in county, state and national races during the past couple years. Barack Obama used Facebook in groundbreaking fashion during his successful drive to the presidency in the 2008 election.

“It’s become more common,” said Matt Bergbower, assistant professor of political science at Indiana State University and the former rural policy adviser to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

Compared to phone calls and e-mails, Facebook — if handled correctly — can be “a better way to reach voters,” Bergbower added. Its flexibility allows candidates to address problem issues. For example, when Quinn was running for governor (after ascending to the office from his role as lieutenant governor in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment), polls showed he trailed his opponent among women voters. So his election team produced a video message from Quinn, highlighting the role of women in his administration and posted it on his campaign Facebook page.

“That’s another opportunity for candidates to assess where they are before election day and then react,” Bergbower said.

Facebook has its shortcomings, though. Folks who search online for a candidate’s Facebook page “are people that are already going to support them,” Bergbower said.

“For the most part,” he added, “it’s mobilizing the base; [Facebook] has its own value, but there are limitations, and that’s the main limitation.”

There are other limitations, too. More than 100 million Americans and a half-billion people worldwide use Facebook, and the fastest-growing user group is the 74-and-older crowd, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Still, by far, the people most often found updating their status are 18- to 33-year-olds (83 percent of them do so), and that demographic also represents people least likely to vote. The percentages of social network users decrease as the ages rise — 34-to-45s (62 percent), 46-to-55s (50 percent), 56-to-64s (43 percent), 65-to-73s (34 percent), and 74s-and-up (16 percent), according to Pew.

As Obama’s success in 2008 revealed, the young can be inspired to vote. Without a similar surge on a local level, though, a typical election probably won’t hinge upon the quality of the candidates’ Facebook pages. “Not very likely,” said Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at Indiana University. “Most races aren’t close. But in those few close races, any set of decisions — whether involving social media, turnout activities, emphasis on early voting, or anything else — can potentially make a difference.”

Terre Haute’s last mayoral election was anything but typical. Bennett beat Burke by just 110 votes out of 12,000-plus cast, becoming the first Republican to win that seat in 40 years.

Thus, despite the social network’s inadequacies, candidates in a local race can’t afford to leave Facebook out of their campaign strategy. “That’s highly inadvisable,” Bergbower said.

That apparently won’t happen. Nation launched his campaign page on Dec. 29, and already has 394 fans who “like” it. (Others may have wound up finding Nation’s personal Facebook page, which was up long before his announcement.) Bennett’s pre-announcement page went up in early fall, and now has 1,796 “friends.” Independent candidate John Cunningham said his Facebook page likely will be unveiled this weekend.

Some pages are structured as Facebook Groups, which include “friends,” interactive commenting and e-mailing. Others are Facebook Fan pages, which allow users to “like” the page, and participate in similar online activities, such as posting comments and viewing upcoming events and videos, without group e-mailing. One advantage of a Fan page is that it’s easier to find in a simple online search than a Facebook Group.

Either way, the key to a candidate maximizing a page’s potential is to use it frequently. Once a week isn’t enough. “You’re looking for activity,” Bergbower said, “and you’re looking for friends.”

That takes time. If a candidate can’t maintain regular Facebook exchanges, campaign staffers or volunteers can assist, Bergbower said. But the candidate needs to drive the commentary. A video message helps. “It gives a more personal touch,” Bergbower said.

Both Nation and Bennett (who’s making his first foray into Facebooking) want to be the actual voice on their pages. “If I can do it, I want to do it,” Nation said. “I think it’s much more valuable for a candidate to respond than a staffer.”

Bennett agreed, while acknowledging his already busy schedule may limit him. “I’ll have to find some way to keep it fresh,” he said.

Ideally, a candidate’s commitment to a Facebook page will result in an old-fashioned payoff — friends tell their friends who to support. “I can connect with local people here who can, in turn, connect with other local people,” said Cunningham, the independent.

Word of mouth. Door to door. Laptop to iPhone. It’s all politics.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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