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Different paths, One Goal: New Media in the Republican Primary

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Thanks to the success of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, presidential candidates can no longer afford to ignore social media. By enlisting the power of new media, the 2008 Obama campaign mobilized support and raised money at record levels. Today, the 2012 Republican primary demonstrates how the relationship between politics and social media continues to evolve. Let’s take a look at how the Ron Paul (@RonPaul) and Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) campaigns implement social media in different ways in order to yield different results.

A central component of Ron Paul’s candidacy is his identity as a libertarian, which makes many constituents view him as an outsider to the mainstream Republican Party. This has won him an abundance of support at the grassroots level, but not the favor of national media. The Paul campaign has complained of being shut out during debates and of unequal access to the mouthpiece of naional media. This lack of attention from traditional outlets has resulted in a heavier reliance on social media by Paul. The beauty of new media for candidates like Paul is that traditional media can no longer act as a gatekeeper for coverage. It also grants candidates the ability to communicate directly with their constituents. The Paul campaign’s use of social media has proven effective through strong showings in primaries, and his triumph in new media consultancy Sociagility’s “social primary.”

If Paul is the maverick outsider looking to crash the mainstream, Mitt Romney represents the other end of the spectrum. Romney’s early primary victories and immense cash flow have satisfied the media’s criteria to name him one of the Republican Primary frontrunners. Romney’s generous financial backing, with a net worth of $202 million according to CNN Money, and position as a frontrunner has yielded him plenty of attention from traditional media. With this amount of media attention, the Romney campaign is less reliant on social media than its grassroots counterpart. While reaching out and rallying support through social media is one of Ron Paul’s signature moves, Romney has the advantage of delivering key messages through large media outlets- this leads to a substantive difference in the content of candidates’ social media interaction.

CBS News said that Romney “looks like the frontrunner” early in the primary. Since then, one of his campaign’s main challenges has been to maintain a leading status. Sampling the @MittRomney twitter feed provides evidence of this effort to stay the course. Recent tweets include:

“Congratulations to my fellow Republicans tonight. We'll continue to take our message

of liberty & prosperity to every corner of the country,”

and

“@BarackObama wants to raise taxes & grow government. I’ll cut taxes and make government smaller, simpler, & smarter.”

Now consider Ron Paul’s approach. A recent facebook post reads:

“The national political establishment and their pals in the national media will do ANYTHING to silence our message of liberty. It’s up to you and me to stop them. So if you haven’t yet done so, please pledge to give as much as you can to Ron Paul’s February 14 Money Bomb.”

You don’t have to be a political correspondent to note the difference in tone and content of each candidate’s message.

Ron Paul wants to rock the boat and raise money. An inflammatory post with a call to action can do that. Mitt Romney wants to stay the course as frontrunner and unite the party against Obama for the general election.

A key principle guiding candidates’ social media activity is that it reinforces the overall message of the campaign. A zealous adherence to this has led to some controversy for the Romney campaign, with its controversial request that a satirical Pinterest account called “MittRomneyGOP” be changed to “FakeMittRomney,” on grounds that it was misleading.

The young social media site obliged and changed the name of the account.

Since Pinterest is so new, there was no process in place for “verified accounts,” a procedure common to more mature social media sites which makes the purpose of specific accounts (such as satire) obvious to users. The Romney campaign contacted Pinterest within 24 hours of the fake account’s creation. Such a rapid response show’s the campaign’s emphasis on monitoring new media at large in addition to managing its own accounts.

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Comparing each candidate’s use of social media provides an interesting snapshot of each campaign. It also shows the continuous integration of social media in the political sphere. Social media’s versatility makes it an essential tool in any campaign. A Google campaign stated that “the web is what you make of it,” and this certainly holds true for social media. Whether campaigns use it to trigger shockwaves or unite a divided electorate, social media is only beginning to reach its potential in the political arena.

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