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Caucuses 2.0: Online efforts become instant political laboratories in Iowa

Barack Obama claims more Facebook supporters, YouTube subscribers and Iowa advocates than any other Democratic candidate. His solid victory in last night’s caucus suggests that virtual votes just may transfer into the real deal.

Barack Obama claims more Facebook supporters, YouTube subscribers and Iowa advocates than any other Democratic candidate. His solid victory in last night’s caucus suggests that virtual votes just may transfer into the real deal. The evidence: a record number of first-time caucus-goers.

Of course, the Illinois senator’s charisma, vision and organization also deserve credit for his win, but during a neck-and-neck campaign marked by brand-new online efforts, it’s worth noting that the man who BaRocked the vote also BaRocked the web. In the 12 hours following the news he had won, more than 1,000 congratulatory wall posts appeared on his Facebook account, teeming with capital letters and exclamation points.

The Iowa caucus provides a new and telling test of the value of Internet support in a presidential primary. Comparing online numbers with caucus votes is an apples-to-oranges enterprise; online communities know no geographic boundaries, while the core of the caucus is local. Still, it offers a case study of the intriguing ways online and offline votes can contradict or reinforce each other.

The verdict: You can fizzle online and still sizzle in a caucus. John Edwards, for example, lagged considerably behind Hillary Rodham Clinton on Facebook and in website traffic. On the flip side, an Internet sensation can be a caucus dud. Ron Paul was the only candidate who managed to outpace Obama in website traffic and YouTube subscribers, yet he landed in fifth place Thursday night.

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What gives? Paul’s legion of online fans may prefer to twitter with people online rather than debate with neighbors face to face, said Albert Maruggi of St. Paul, a senior fellow for the Society for New Communications Research. He runs a high-tech marketing firm and has worked in multiple high-profile political campaigns, including as press secretary of the Republican National Committee in 1987 and ’88. “There are a lot of folks on social media who are less interested in participating in the establishment, the suit-and-tie gang,” he said.

Snapshot of online interest in presidential candidates
Does online interest in a presidential candidate translate into caucus night support? We can’t say for certain, because Internet sites have no geographic boundaries, so Iowans make up only a small fraction of the numbers. Still, the online statistics offer some measure of voter interest during the campaign’s early stages.

Sources: Facebook, YouTube, presidential candidates’ websites

Door to door, click by click
Ultimately, it now takes a combination of on- and offline organization to win a caucus. Social networking will never replace door-to-door canvassing, but it will play an increasingly important role. This was made clear by the impressive turnout of young voters (who in large numbers went on to choose each party’s youngest candidate).

Web patterns reveal some interesting parallels. For example, as last-minute polls implied a tight Iowa race between Romney and Huckabee, their website traffic was implying a clear leader. In December, Huckabee’s website attracted nearly three times as many unique visitors as Romney’s. Even more notable, Huckabee’s visitors appeared to be more engaged. His average visitor spent more time (6:53 vs. 6:07 minutes) and clicked on more pages (5.3 vs. 3.5 pages) than Romney’s.

These are the kind of little-known statistics online directors are mulling over as they process the caucus results in a political landscape that technology has radically reshaped — in ways we’re just beginning to grasp.

“The Internet,” read the headline of an article that appeared in the July 16 U.S. News & World Report “User’s Guide” to the presidential campaign. The subhead: “It’s a Potent New Tool, But No One’s Sure How to Use It.”

And everyone wants to use it. In preparation for Iowa’s caucus, campaign staffs scrambled to out- (social) network each other with varying degrees of finesse.

“We’re taking a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach, trying a lot of things online and seeing which stick,” said Stephen Smith, director of online communications for Mitt Romney. “That’s the beauty of this new online world; there is a lot of experimentation, and there should be.”

It’s also the urgency of this presidential campaign; there isn’t time to study a high-tech tool before using it. “You just put it out there, and if people use it, great — there’s your market research,” Maruggi said.

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“It’s very hard to pin down the value of online supporters,” he added. They make up a relatively small number, which must be taken with several grains of salt, he said. Some Web visitors and YouTube subscribers may be opponents, for example. Some Facebook supporters may be too young to vote, while others may have no intention of voting. And there’s no rule against supporting multiple candidates on Facebook.

From the web to the ballot
No one really knows how to turn online support into old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood caucus votes. “Enthuse them at a pep rally, offer transportation and other such support — and cross your fingers,” advises Dennis Goldford, a political professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

That uncertainty didn’t keep campaigns from trying to convert Facebook supporters into caucus voters. Many staffs tried to break down Facebook by region and college, directing members to the closest caucus. Their efforts were complicated by the fact that the state’s largest college, the University of Iowa, is still on winter break, and its students are scattered. But we can be sure that such efforts will continue in future campaigns, backed by a growing understanding of Facebook’s political utility.

The little research that has been done so far suggests that social networks can provide a small but real political edge. Bentley College professors Christine Williams and Jeff Gulati study found that the open-seat congressional candidates who updated their Facebook profile in 2006 had a 3.8 percent higher vote share than candidates who didn’t. And open-seat candidates who doubled the number of their Facebook supporters increased their final vote share by 3 percent.

The true power of social networks has more to do with quality than quantity, Maruggi said. They provide a unique forum for politicians, rewarding those who can clearly articulate their vision and quickly evoke confidence. Social networkers embrace “sincerity, candor and authenticity.”

It’s no coincidence that those traits have most often been applied to Obama and Huckabee.

Technology brings swifter and brighter caucus results

MANCHESTER, IOWA — The Iowa caucus provided an opportunity for the state’s Republican Party to enter the 21st century. In 2000, the last time it calculated caucus votes (since Bush ran unopposed in 2004) GOP leaders faxed the final results to the press.

This year, it’s all online, baby, which cut the typical gap to about 10 minutes typically between the phone call from a precinct and the posting of the result, said Craig Robinson, Iowa GOP’s political director.

“There’s a temptation to be instantaneous, and I think the media wants it to be instantaneous, but we’ve done a lot of explaining to say, ‘Hey, we want to look this over first,’ ” he said. “We want to be patient and make sure it’s done right.”

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Cell-phone coverage has improved dramatically in the past eight years, Robinson added, making calls from far-flung precinct leaders much easier to hear. (Still, 65 precincts of the 1,781 precincts had not yet called in their results as of this morning.)

Meanwhile, Iowa’s Democratic Party beefed up its computer system, reporting more localized results than ever before, said spokeswoman Carrie Giddins.

Another first: The caucus results appeared on 10 LED billboards across the state, operated by Jim Schumacher, president of Outdoor Advertising Association of Iowa. They demonstrated “real time” results, and proved popular; Schumacher said he’s already been asked to do the same in future Dubuque elections. And he’s hoping digital billboards will be used to announce the results of upcoming presidential primaries.

And yet, the heart of the Iowa caucus couldn’t be lower-tech. Neighbors met face to face — no texting allowed — and talked. Pens were put to paper ballots and tallies were scrolled in margins. Hands were raised, and heads counted.

Among Democrats, the ancient art of persuasion ensued as the members of small nonviable groups were coaxed, corralled and cajoled to join the larger groups.

The nature of these meetings is not far from the meaning of the American Indian word caucus: a gathering of ruling tribal chiefs. —Christina Capecchi