13 March 2008

Social Media's Next Political Test

OK, sorry, this is a long post. Sue me.

A while back I speculated that the early primary dates would create a long lull in the campaign season with two presumptive nominees who had nothing to do but hurl nasty rhetorical lobs at each other. I figured that social media tools would be critical at that time, because the campaigns would be conserving cash even as they raised it, and they'd be forced to rely on earned media and the user-generated content that social media tools provide to build and maintain a messaging platform.

Well, we have a lull in the campaign season now. Sorta.

There are six weeks before the Pennsylvania Primary, but there aren't two presumptive nominees. It's plenty nasty, but to my disappointment it's the two remaining Democratic candidates engaged in political fisticuffs. (Of course, I think one is trying to brawl while the other is trying to stay positive and above it, but that's just my opinion. And that could change at any moment.)

Regardless, this is a time when social media in politics faces another crucial test. We now know social media can help turnout a new generation of voters, and it can help raise gobs and gobs of cash. Now we have to see if it can sustain a messaging strategy.

Like Ohio and Texas, Pennsylvania has a couple of fairly expensive media markets - particularly Philadelphia. But now there are six weeks of airtime to fill with tv commercials, when there were only two for Ohio and Texas. I'm not so sure that even the Obama fundraising juggernaut can sustain that kind of saturation bombing of the airwaves.

Pennsylvania's demographics seem to tilt toward the Democratic constituencies that have supported Senator Clinton. The population is older than in most states. There's a substantial number of Catholics. Blue-collar. Furthermore, the Governor and the Mayor of Philadelphia - two of the most important Democrats in the state - have endorsed Senator Clinton. The Clinton campaign has a lot of veterans on it who know Pennsylvania politics very well - President Clinton's people worked hard to win this state, particularly in 1992. Her strength in the state is embodied in the 19-point lead she had in polls here just as the Mississippi Primary was wrapping up.

Senator Obama has support from those constituencies that rely on social media to do their jobs and communicate with their friends and families - the creative class, tech-savvy folks, and college kids. We already know they'll use the 'net to raise more cash than the Clinton campaign, and we can probably predict that they'll come out to the polls. But they're still short.

Saturating the airwaves with commercials for six weeks will probably annoy a lot of voters. If the campaign continues its nasty tone, it's easy to see how some will lose interest and choose not to participate.

The task in front of the Obama campaign is to leverage the creative advantage they have in the social media space to earn and build coverage in more traditional forms of media. They'll probably try to do it by letting their supporters do their own thing. That's a pretty zen strategy, one that I'm not sure any other campaign to date would do. But so far, it's worked for them.

Remember will.i.am.'s video where he took Senator Obama's speech in New Hampshire and put it to music and did that whole "we are the world" thing? Could anyone have predicted that an a capella group full of suburban white kids from Lewis & Clark college would cover it and post it online?

I'm thinking a gospel choir in Philly would knock this sucker out of the park - and get on the 5pm news to boot. There are thousands of these things floating around YouTube.

Of course, Senator Clinton's folks are starting to get the hang of this social media thing - thanking Ohio and Rhode Island voters via twitter, for example. But they have a lot of catching up to do. Had they invested more in social media earlier, they might have the tools to overcome the money advantage of the Obama campaign.

Of course, we have six weeks to watch this develop. Stay tuned - if you can stand it.

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