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Bentley Political Science Professors Study Facebook as 2006 Campaign Tool

October 17, 2006

As the Internet increasingly transforms the way political candidates 'do business,' two Bentley College political science professors are analyzing the use of Facebook by 2006 U.S. congressional and gubernatorial candidates. The aim of the study is to determine whether candidate postings on the site are a useful viral marketing tool for generating publicity, campaign contributions, and ultimately votes.

At the end of September 2006, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton (New York); Democratic U.S. House candidate Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin); and independent Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, had garnered the most supporters among Facebook members.

Facebook is a self-enrolling online community whose members consist primarily of students, faculty and staff at U.S. colleges and universities. As part of a 2006 election feature, Facebook created entries for all U.S. congressional and gubernatorial candidates; in turn, candidates or their campaign workers are responsible for personalizing the profile with everything from photographs to qualifications for office.

Facebook members find candidates' entries and register support by going to a section of the site called Election Pulse (http://www.facebook.com/election_pulse.php) and then searching for the candidate by name, party, or geographic location. Facebook displays the number of supporters for each candidate and calculates the percentage of 'votes' that candidate has in their race. Members also have the opportunity to post comments on the candidate's 'wall' and invite their friends to become supporters.

Bentley professors Christine Williams and Jeff Gulati say Facebook offers candidates a low cost way to use the social networking features of the online community to reach the college student demographic - a long-standing recruiting pool for campaign workers.

On the other hand, Williams says it will be hard to get noticed among the other 108 million Facebook profiles. "Even if it was possible to sort through this clutter, it is not a matter of simply reaching this demographic; that same demographic must be mobilized to act on the information by volunteering, contributing financially, and ultimately registering and casting a vote," she says.

At the end of September, although a majority of congressional and gubernatorial candidates as yet had not taken advantage of Facebook as a campaign tool, Williams and Gulati found:

  • 36 or 25% of candidates for U.S. Senate have posted their own profiles: 17 Democrats, 11 Republicans, 8 minor party candidates and independents
  • 139 or 12% of candidates for U.S. House of Representatives have posted their own profiles: 74 Democrats, 54 Republicans, 11 minor party candidates and independents
  • 52 or 43% of candidates for state Governor have posted their own profiles: 32 Democrats, 14 Republicans, 6 minor party candidates and independents
  • 10 or 36% of Senate incumbents running for reelection have posted a profile; 51 or 13% of incumbents from the U.S. House; and 16 or 64% of the listed candidates for Governor have personalized their profile.

Candidates can attract supporters even if they haven't posted a profile. In fact, Williams and Gulati found that every candidate has at least one supporter in his or her tally - and most have supporters in the triple digits.

At the end of September, Senate candidates with the largest number of supporters were: Hillary Clinton, NY, Democrat (6,971); Bob Casey, PA, Democrat (5,328); and Ned Lamont, CT, Democrat (4,093).

The House candidates with the largest number of supporters were: Tammy Baldwin, WI, Democrat (913); Dennis Moore, KS, Democrat (863); and Patty Wetterling, MN, Democrat (693). The Republican with the most support and ranked 9th overallwas Speaker Dennis Hastert, IL, with 580 supporters.

Candidates for Governor with the largest number of supporters were: Kinky Friedman, TX, Independent (9,363); Dick DeVos, MI, Republican (5,732); and Ted Strickland, OH, Democrat (5,092).

"Facebook members who are undecided or not very interested in politics can become engaged by viewing a friend's or classmate's profile that prominently displays support for various candidates and causes, right along with their list of favorite bands and sports teams," Gulati points out.

What will Facebook members learn about candidates by viewing their profiles?

 

  • Qualifications for office
  • Which issues are important and the candidates' stands on the issues
  • The groups and other candidates that they support, opening a further window into the values and opinions of the candidate
  • Information on the locations and times of local events and updates on the availability of campaign materials

Despite the potential for reaching the college-age demographic, Williams and Gulati caution that there is potential for embarrassing situations. Because the sites are self-regulating, it is difficult to control the agenda and tone of the postings.

Although rare to this point, supporters of a rival candidate can infiltrate a competitor's site and post derogatory comments about the candidate. More commonly found are supporters who use graphic and obscene language to characterize an opponent. Candidates can have these highly offensive comments removed, but since about 85% of the candidates have not developed their profiles, they are completely unaware of the postings.

 

The co-authors plan to continue to monitor activity on Facebook and other social networking sites popular among younger voters by interviewing candidates and supporters and conducting a survey of the online community.

 

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit www.bentley.edu

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