A candidate makes a verbal slip at a campaign event. Newspaper and television reporters scramble to ask the candidate to clarify the comment and then seek out opponents and others for reaction. It could be hours before the information makes it on a news website or broadcast and a day before it’s immortalized in print.
At the same time, an attendee at the campaign event scribbles the potentially inflammatory remark on a piece of paper. She takes her smart phone out and within seconds posts an update on her Facebook page. The entire world sees it.
Welcome to the new world of political campaigns.
Everyone from the five candidates for governor to local city council hopefuls is using social media such as Facebook to reach potential voters. What they are finding, according to political experts, is a cheap way to advertise and rally supporters but also an instant forum for negativity.
“Everyone’s dream is that something will go viral, but when that something is bad, it can become a nightmare,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage is a perfect example. More than 7,000 people “like” him on his campaign Facebook page and use the site to promote the candidate, to highlight his positions and to plug any public appearances. He has more Facebook support than any other candidate and has generally been considered the frontrunner.
On the other side, at least two other Facebook pages have been created by LePage detractors. “S—- Paul LePage Says,” which is devoted to the Republican’s slips of the tongue, has more than 400 friends. “Enraged LePage” has 1,600 followers and links to videos of LePage losing his temper.
Democrat Libby Mitchell, 4,000 followers on Facebook, and independents Eliot Cutler, 3,000, Shawn Moody, 4,000, and Kevin Scott, 300, all have active Facebook pages, but none appears to have an opposition page. Yet.
Melcher said the biggest benefit of campaign Facebook pages is to update people who already support the candidates. Campaign websites and e-mail lists have existed for many years, but in 2010, the stream of information is more immediate and more urgent.
Facebook — the ubiquitous site whose origins are the subject of the film “The Social Network” that hit theaters this past weekend — fits that description best.
“Candidates have gotten better about updating and putting new content up continuously because they have to,” Melcher said.
The five gubernatorial campaign Facebook pages serve essentially the same purpose, although closer looks reveal subtle differences that seem to suit each candidate.
On LePage’s Facebook site, you can donate money, you can request and print an absentee ballot, you can register to be a campaign volunteer or request lawn signs and stickers. His most recent television ad can be viewed on the site, as can a biographical video.
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the candidate’s page was launched in January as a way to spread his message and turn supporter energy into action. Sometimes, Facebook friends use the page to donate to the campaign.
Mitchell’s page is a little more personal. There are numerous photos from her campaign events. She has a schedule of public appearances. She seems to post comments herself.
“For the first time, it’s a campaign necessity,” Mitchell spokesman David Loughran said, referring to Facebook. “If you don’t have it, people will notice.”
Cutler’s page mirrors his campaign in that it’s heavily issue-oriented. It has links to stories and commentary about current topics. Campaign manager Ted O’Meara, who has been involved in politics since before the Internet was a major force, said he’s glad he has younger volunteers to help manage Cutler’s social media presence.
“It’s here to stay and it’s only growing,” O’Meara said. “It can cut both ways. There are no real filters, but if you’re transparent and authentic about your content, I think you’ll be successful.”
Moody has a pretty vibrant, down-to-earth Facebook page. Scott, who has the least support in every poll, also has the lowest Facebook buzz.
Campaigns have long used whatever medium was available to get their name and message out. Some methods, such as television advertising, are expensive but reach a wide audience. Some, such as yard signs, are cheaper but their impact is harder to gauge.
“I think 10 signs at an intersection isn’t an effective way to spend money, especially in a governor’s race. People already know your name,” said Melcher. “But if we’re talking about private property, I think, as a neighbor, seeing who your neighbor supports is a powerful statement.”
That sentiment could be true of Facebook. A candidate may have 7,000 friends, but each one of those friends has dozens or hundreds of friends who might be subject to influence.
Twitter, to a lesser degree, has been used, as well — sending out information to followers 140 characters at a time.
According to Demeritt, LePage has 600 followers of his Twitter account.
John Lombardo, the new-media guru for Cutler, said the independent’s Twitter feed is more customer-service than discussion driven.
“It’s more to monitor what people are talking about and correct information as needed,” Lombardo said. “Facebook is where a lot of the conversation happens.”
Loughran said Mitchell’s Twitter account is another vital tool.
“Ten years ago, if I sent a press release, it went out to 40 reporters,” he said. “Now it goes out to 40 reporters, 4,000 Facebook friends, hundreds of Twitter followers and everyone that visits our website.”
On the negative side, Loughran said the Internet has created vast amounts of information for voters to pore through, but it’s up to them to filter that information.
Users on candidates’ Facebook pages often discuss issues, sometimes involving the candidate or a proxy, but many discussions devolve into petty interpretations of opposing candidates’ stances or opinions.
Melcher said the biggest priority in any campaign is reaching undecided voters. How a candidate does that depends on the level of the race.
“At the local level, it’s all about personal contact. Knocking on doors and phone banking,” he said. “At the gubernatorial level, it’s harder. You have to do it wholesale.”
That means candidates pick an issue that voters care about and start tailoring ads, speeches and likely Facebook posts to address that issue.