In the now infamous YouTube campaign video, Herman Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, extols the virtues of Herman Cain, then takes a long, contemplative drag from a cigarette and blows smoke toward the camera. Herman Cain then appears on screen for a few wordless seconds, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
"One of the themes within this campaign is let Herman be Herman," Cain recently explained when asked about the video. "Mark Block is a smoker, and we say let Mark be Mark. That's all we're trying to say, because we believe let people be people."
The video quickly went viral, generating more than 1.3 million views in less than a week. It has since inspired scores of parodies. While pundits tried to tease out meaning behind the video (a hoax? a bid for attention?), social media strategists say the video ushered in a new era of campaign marketing that will likely define the 2012 election: Namely, will Republican candidates be able to "figure out" social media in order to expand their followings, promote their messages, and encourage action?
"We're still early on, but things are already happening," says Brent Leary, co-author of Barack 2.0, an exhaustive study of the president's successful 2009 social media strategy. "It's going to be interesting to see how they embrace the social culture into the campaign."
A strong social-media following isn't just a popularity contest; it may also be a predictor of campaign success. On the morning of November 3, 2010, for example, the day after Election Dight, Facebook announced that 74 percent of House of candidates with the greatest number of Facebook fans on their ballots won their contests, while in the Senate 81 percent of candidates with the most Facebook fans won seats. Of course, the numbers don't imply a scientific correlation to election success, but they're certainly helpful in understanding the relative new-media influence of candidates.
So, how are the candidates doing this cycle?
If it were just a numbers game, the republicans would appear to be struggling. Nine out of the 10 candidates have fewer than 200,000 followers, while Obama has about 10.9 million.
Compared to his Republican counterparts, Newt Gingrich, with more than 1.3 million followers, would appear to be crushing the competition. But earlier this summer, shortly after Gingrich announced his candidacy on Twitter, a report surfaced that Gingrinch's camp paid for non-active (i.e. fake) Twitter followers. "About 80 percent of those accounts are inactive or are dummy accounts created by various "follow agencies," another 10 percent are real people who are part of a network of folks who follow others back and are paying for followers themselves....and the remaining 10 percent may, in fact, be real, sentient people who happen to like Newt Gingrich," a source told Gawker.
On the Facebook front, Mitt Romney, with 1.15 million fans, is leading the pack. But his Klout score, which measures online influence, is pegged at 75, short of Cain's 80. President Obama's Klout score is 88.
But more than just a numbers game, social media is about a qualitative message, and the ability to encourage dialogue and engagement with followers.
"The candidate who understands that [social media] is not just for promotion but also for organization and encouraging people to move to action, that will be the campaign that wins," says David Bullock, Leary's co-author on Barack 2.0. "What sells on social media is what sells in celebrity: having a big personality, having an engaging and fun personality, and having a personality that takes a stand."
For example, Michele Bachmann has her own off-beat, opinionated social media flair, taking to Facebook make quips such as: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; thank you Governor Perry for using my ideas for your tax plan." (That particular line generated 931 comments.) Newt Gingrich is one of the only candidates that responds to invidividuals, tweeting at one 15-year-old student from Iowa this week, saying "Thank you for your support. I know we can use your help in Iowa."
The candidates have idiosyncracies, too. Ron Paul has been known to refer to himself in the third person with a hashtag, while Herman Cain made his handle @THEHermanCain. (The capitalized THE adds emphasis, we suppose?). The social media profiles also offer a glimpse into the personal lives of candidates. Mitt Romney likes Modern Family, American Idol, Star Wars, waterskiing, and horseback riding with his wife. Newt Gingrich likes visiting zoos in different cities, going for walks, and paleontology, among other things. Rick Perry tweets about his afternoon hunting. "With Congressman Steve King in Iowa hunting pheasant. The start of a very good day!! http://yfrog.com/gylc4omj" reads a recent tweet.
Buddy Roemer, the oft-forgotten ex-govenor of Louisiana that announced his bid for candidacy in July, has his own conversational Twitter style. “Somebody suggested I go as Super PACman for Halloween. What do you think?" he recently asked his followers. And Gary Johnson, former govenor of New Mexico, has taken to Facebook to complain about being left out, writing "Another CNN debate, and excluded again. In NY, where I appeared on Cavuto. Check it out."
"A lot of the campaign managers are not versed on how to package, engage, actually coordinate activity," says Bullock. "Having the theory behind social media and having the actual practice is going to be very telling in this campaign. With Obama, they have the experience and the players in place.The competition has to come up to speed and [learn how to] engage."
What do you think? What are the standout successes and failures of the social media campaigns as you see them?
Additional reporting by Caitlin Berens.