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Bentley College Political Science Professors Examine Role of Social Networks in 2008 Presidential Campaign

July 29, 2007

A Bentley College study has found that the 2008 presidential candidates continue to wage a vigorous battle for supporters on social networking sites, even though it is still unclear whether a formidable online presence is having any effect on the dynamics of the nomination contests, according to Bentley Political Science professors Christine B. Williams and Jeff Gulati, who have just completed an analysis of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates' social network profiles and supporters.

The two professors will present their findings on the role of social networking sites in national elections this August at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association. Their study also examines data from 2006 and provides some initial insights into the role these sites are playing in the 2008 presidential campaign. In general, the candidates who have the most supporters on MySpace, Facebook and YouTube are the same ones who raised the most money in the first and second quarters, and lead in the most recent opinion polls and campaign website traffic rankings.

There are, however, a few notable deviations from that pattern. Among the Democratic contenders, the first (Obama), second (Clinton) and third place (Edwards) ordering is identical across online indicators; however, Hillary Clinton remains ahead of Barack Obama in July opinion polls. For the Republicans, Ron Paul tops the web traffic and social network rankings, but lags in both contributions and poll standings. Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, leads in both the polls and fund raising, but ranks much lower in website traffic and social network supporters. Indeed, Giuliani does not as yet have an official profile on Facebook.

The following data provide interesting insights into the role of the Internet in the 2008 presidential election. First, the Paul, and to a lesser extent, Obama, examples show that a dominant online presence does not necessarily convert to a commensurate standing in offline polls or campaign contributions. Similarly, a weak online presence relative to other challengers need not preclude reaching the top of the polls, as Giuliani's numbers show. Of course, these data can not answer the most important question about the role of the Internet in 2008: are the Paul and Obama campaigns doing much better than they would be if they did not have a dominant online presence? Or, would Giuliani be further ahead of the pack if his online presence were stronger?

The number of supporters candidates have on the social networks Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are also revealing. Adding the top five Democratic and top five Republican candidates' numbers together shows that the Democrats outpoll Republicans almost five to one on Facebook, and almost three to one on MySpace and YouTube. The Facebook numbers in particular underscore the stronger appeal that Democrats have with the 18 to 29 year-old age demographic. With over 100,000 Facebook supporters, Obama's numbers dwarf second place Clinton's of nearly 25,000, and third place Edwards' of nearly 10,000. The picture emerging from social networks is of an underlying generational divide working in Obama's favor that separates him from the other top tier Democratic candidates.

The Republican's social network numbers tell another story. The top three, Paul, John McCain and Mitt Romney are relatively close to each other on MySpace. However, on Facebook and YouTube, Paul and Romney are close while McCain trails far behind.

"Since MySpace members represent a wider age demographic than Facebook, and its rankings have less volatility than those on YouTube, the higher parity in MySpace supporters probably mirrors the closer bunching we see in the three Republican candidates' poll standings," says Williams. "The Facebook and YouTube numbers suggest that a generational divide is working against McCain as well as Giuliani."

Besides Giuliani, Tommy Thompson is the only other candidate filing with the Federal Election Commission who has not posted a social network profile; unofficial candidate Fred Thompson has posted one on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.

According to Williams, not all candidate profiles are equal. "Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, and Romney have the most content on their Facebook profiles while those of Duncan Hunter, Fred Thompson and Mike Gravel are relatively bare bones," says Williams. "Although Clinton, Obama and Paul have the most Facebook supporters, their profiles have not gone beyond the basic features: contact, personal, education and work information, plus posts and photos. Supporters are responsible for their long lists of wall posts, notes and affiliated groups. In this sense, Facebook popularity is unearned. It derives from viral marketing principles rather than active maintenance and exploitation of features and content on the site itself."

Both similarities and notable differences exist between social network profiles and campaign web sites. Similarities include:


  • biographical information
  • issue position information
  • excerpts or clips from speeches, appearances, press coverage
  • campaign photographs or videos
  • comment blogs posted by visitors

    Notable differences typically found on the social but not the campaign sites include:

    • personal interests and activities, favorite music, movies, and books
    • campaign events: Mike Huckabee is the one exception who announces them
    • solicitations for campaign contributions: Sam Brownback and Kucinich are the two exceptions, generating $200 and $6, respectively through Facebook.


    "As the primaries and caucuses approach, expect that the better organized campaigns will attempt to use both social networks and campaign websites to supplement their voter mobilization strategies, a pattern that we observed in our recent study of the 2006 congressional campaigns," says Gulati.

    According to Nucleus Research and Knowledge Storm, fewer than 5% of respondents report YouTube is a source of election information; 19% use candidates' websites, but 72% rely on mainstream sources such as newspapers and magazines. Gulati cautions that even though candidates are jumping on the social network 'bandwagon,' in the end it may not matter. "The translation of internet strategies into votes may be minimal."


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