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Use of Social Media Roils 2010 Elections

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Tallahassee, FL – This week Senator George LeMieux tweeted the news of his daughter's birth and Congressman Kendrick Meek's campaign credited Facebook with helping him collect 145,000 voter petitions to qualify for the U.S. Senate race. As Margie Menzel reports, the use of social media is a whole new political art.

You could tell it was a panel on social media by the number of audience members blogging, tweeting and checking their email throughout - nearly every last one. The host: Florida Associated Press political reporter Brendan Farrington. The occasion: the AP's pre-session Legislative Planning Day. The audience: reporters. The panelists included 26-year-old Phil Vangelakos, owner of Republican-affiliated Brushfire Media, who was thrilled to be sharing a panel experience with Adam Smith, political editor of the St. Petersburg Times and creator of the paper's Buzz Blog.

"I'm not a newspaper reader," said Vangelakos. "I'm probably outside of all your demographics. But I'm right there with what Adam does. My work day in and day out with candidates lives and dies by what goes on on that blog."

With the rise of the Internet, the news cycle has gone from the next day's paper to 24/7. Responses to new developments fly thick and fast. And as Smith observed, not everyone has the knack. In St. Petersburg's recent election for mayor, for instance...

"The guy who had the most money paid consultants at a very sophisticated social media campaign. He was tweeting all the time. He was Facebooking all the time. And basically he annoyed the hell out of everyone in the city, and he came in third, and he spent a fortune and the consultants did well," Smith said.

Also on hand: Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who ran the state's 2008 Obama/Biden campaign - arguably the standard-setting campaign for social networking.

"If there is anything we learned in the Obama campaign in 2008, it's that the Internet can be used to get people to do the kinds of things that win campaigns," Schale said. "People don't go online and get excited and vote for you, but if you can use the Internet so that people can make phone calls to their friends from their home. We used it to assign voters to people so they could go out and actually turn people out to vote, to write checks. Almost 300,000 people gave money to the Obama campaign in Florida. We registered almost 90,000 people through the Internet."

Vangelakos said the 2010 election cycle features Republican candidates who know how to use the Internet.

"Bill McCollum, my old boss - he knows the Web, he understands the Web, he's prosecuted crimes on the Web, and now he's using the Web to further his campaign."

As to former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has since surged ahead of Governor Charlie Crist in the Republican contest for U.S. Senate, Vangelakos said the Internet has been key to his success.

"Marco Rubio, six months ago, was a shoestring campaign that with a couple of ferocious bloggers and some Youtube videos and a web site is on the verge of toppling just a political dynamo in Charlie Crist," Vangelakos said.

Sean Doughtie of Taproot Creative has done work for Rubio and such GOP powerhouses as Jeb Bush, John Thrasher and Dean Cannon.

"You know, in Twitter you can ask a question to a candidate as a person, and it also provides those candidates the ability to become human," said Doughtie. "It's very difficult to relate to a lot of elected officials. The world that they live in is very different from most of us. It provides them an opportunity to show their humanity, to show the personal side, what goes on inside their head, what makes them tick."

But that same availability may give a candidate enough rope to hang him- or herself, said Adam Smith.

"You know, it's going to work for Marco Rubio," said Smith. "Nobody remotely believes Charlie Crist is sending a tweet."

Schale went further.

"I think the real social media application going forward in the short term is really this opportunity to organize movements," he said. "I think Marco Rubio, for example, has done a really good job - not so much of using the Internet to gin up momentum for him, but to use the Internet to harness what was, I believe, for some time a movement against Charlie Crist."

So does the Internet give an insubstantial candidate substance? No way, said Sean Doughtie.

"I don't believe that social media is going to win a campaign for any candidate. But I do believe that improper use of social media or ignoring it can certainly lose a campaign for a candidate," said Doughtie.

"I think it's a very important tool for communicating your message, but at the end of the day, it's a candidate's message that's going to win or lose an election."

And naturally, you can find this story on our Web site, www.wfsu.org.