EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the second in a five-part series on young voters.Stephen Majors
COLUMBUS — When a co-founder of the popular social networking Web site Facebook joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign staff, it sent a signal that the political world had found its latest tool to address the ongoing challenge of the youth vote.
Fired up by an intensely close, partisan election in 2000, notoriously fickle youth voters turned out in large numbers in 2004. Now presidential campaigns hope to tap into the youth psyche and continue the trend in 2008.
Many are turning to avenues such as Facebook and MySpace, social networking technologies revolutionizing the way people interact on the Internet that weren’t around in 2004 when people used simple e-mail. But even the most enthusiastic social networking users say points and clicks and the hundreds of thousands of online “friends” that candidates boast don’t necessarily translate into feet standing in line to vote on Election Day.
Howard Dean, after all, raised a lot of money on the pre-Facebook Internet only to see the offline votes never turn up.
Politics — a world of activism, door-knocking, time-consuming voting and delayed rewards — has met an Internet-molded generation accustomed to doing just about anything easily and quickly online. It is this disconnect between offline political activity and online habits that technologically savvy campaigns must overcome if social networking is to become a transformational political tool.
“We are a lazy generation,” said Meredith Hanover, 20, a nursing student at The Ohio State University. “A lot of our classes are online. We are too lazy to talk on the phone so we text. We’re too lazy to talk on the phone, so we use Facebook. E-mail is a sorry substitute but it’s what we use.”
Social connections on networking sites often occur between people who wouldn’t otherwise bother, or be able, to communicate. It’s easy for users to have a lot of friends online, and it’s easy for presidential candidates like Obama and Hillary Clinton to have tens of thousands of friends. But how many offline votes do 100,000 online friends amount to?
“This is not going to be the savior of getting new and young voters to the polls,” said Jane Fleming Kleeb, executive director of
Young Voter PAC, a progressive group that supports Democratic candidates who target voters between the ages of 18 and 35.
Still, some campaigns and youth Internet users say social networking technologies have the potential to centralize multimedia information about candidates for potential new voters who aren’t paying attention to politics in the offline world.
“When you’re talking about political campaigns, it’s all right there,” said Brian Osborne, a 21-year-old Ohio State senior who’s supporting Republican Mitt Romney. “When you watch the news it’s all very fragmented. When you have something like Facebook every single political platform is just a couple clicks away.”
Most presidential candidates have up-to-date personal pages on Facebook and MySpace that educate voters about their personal side, such as where they grew up and what their favorite books are. The pages also contain YouTube clips of candidate speeches and debates, and links to the formal campaign site.
However, having these pages in 2007 is the equivalent to having a Web page in 2000, said Julie Germany, deputy director of the
Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. Simply having the social networking profiles is commonplace and won’t overcome the offline-online divide to get more young voters to the polls, Germany said. Campaigns have to be more than passive with the technologies.
Obama’s campaign has taken quickly to using Facebook. One of the network’s creators, Chris Hughes, left his active role with the company to work for the Democrat.
The Obama campaign is striving to use social networking technologies to spread information about the candidate and as an organizing tool. It has also created its own internal social networking site called my.barackobama.com with links to neighborhoods, friends, events and fundraising.
The campaign is trying to make sure that each field organizer has a Facebook page that advertises and coordinates campaign events at a very local level.
In Iowa, for example, the campaign has created a video shared by Facebook users that describes how the caucus process works and how to find the proper polling place.
Romney’s campaign has contacted independent pro-Romney Facebook and MySpace groups and encouraged them to organize traditional political activities such as rallies and door knockings in their area, said Stephen Smith, Romney’s director of online communication.
The campaign also conducted a contest, partially through online social networking, in which supporters competed to make their own television ad for the candidate. The winning ad was shown in markets in Iowa and New Hampshire. An added benefit: the production didn’t cost the campaign a dime.
Smith said research shows the people who visit Romney’s pages on social networking sites are different from those who visit his traditional Web page.
“You have to go where they live,” Smith said. “They’re not necessarily motivated or interested to come to your home page.”
Many young people continue to be skeptical of the power of the mouse and the keyboard to change politics, and even question their peers’ commitment to political involvement.
“When it comes to actually taking time out of your life to vote, people are going to stand by, thinking they can’t actually make a difference,” said Travis Schulze, an Ohio State junior. “Don’t expect lots of young people to vote because we simply don’t care if we can’t demonstrate it without clicking on a button.”
But Germany argues that young generations always get a bad rap.
“At the end of the day this younger generation is slightly more involved than the rest of us,” she said about political involvement in the latest technologies. “I don’t see it as a cop-out and I certainly don’t see it as lazy.”