On New Year’s Eve 2010, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker responded to a constituent on Twitter whose 65-year-old father needed help shoveling snow from his driveway. Booker’s tweet? “I will do it myself; where does he live?”
And do it himself he did, arriving some 20 minutes later with other volunteers, who were also rounded up through the social networking site.
Booker, who took office in 2006 following a landslide win and was re-elected in 2010, is a political Twitter phenomenon. He has more than 1 million followers, has posted more than 16,000 tweets, and is known for his dynamic use of social media and online technology, which assisted him in winning the mayoral seat. Booker may be the leading example of a well harnessed digital campaign and governance strategy in U.S. politics today, deftly using Web 2.0 tools to stay connected with the people of his city.
Most important, Booker says technology helps voters to get an up-close view of him as a person. “Social media creates that intimate window and gives voters a chance to really see your humanity and the substance of your spirit,” he said. “It creates a different kind of loyalty than with traditional engagement.”
Social media also allows candidates to build a longer-term relationship. “And that is so important,” Booker said. “It eliminates the old, ‘You just come around to talk to me at election time’ issue.” Instead, social media lets Booker engage with hundreds of people at a time and broadens his connection to people he can’t necessarily reach at a campaign or community event. “It changes conversations from private to social. If you don’t build up the tool, you really surrender to the space or come off as very robotic. It’s about creating authentic, dynamic feeds.”
And should Booker run for re-election, a significant part of the voting population already is following him, he said. “The best advice I can offer to candidates not already using social media and technology is this: Dive in now. Do not wait; start aggregating audiences. Once a campaign has started, time is lost. Build the power early. After you win the office, social media usage shouldn’t fall off. It should go up. Social media is about engagement.”
Technology has brought more authenticity to the political sphere, and today it plays a central role in campaigns. Peer-to-peer campaigning — involving emails, social media, micro-targeting, mobile and tablet applications, for instance — allows for a more genuine connection between a candidate and his or her constituency.
“Consider how television changed campaigning in 1964, direct mail in the ’70s, bar codes with absentee balloting in the ’90s, the Internet with fundraising in the mid-2000s or social in 2008. Each time, a forward-thinking campaign adopted the new technology to great success, leading to broader adoption in the subsequent cycle,” said David Binetti, CEO and co-founder of Votizen, a Web service that allows users to campaign with friends on social networks to elect candidates who share their values.
One in 600 people in the United States is elected to public office at some point in their life, said Joe Green, co-founder and president of NationBuilder — a community organizing system that blends the customer relationship management and content management systems as a synthesized website and people database. “The effect of technology on politics at the end of the day will be on local campaigns,” he predicts. Technology alone, however, is not the answer. It’s merely a tool, and like any tool, it must be used correctly to be effective. “You need the wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunities, messaging, strategy,” said Jonathan Karush, founder and president of Liberty Concepts, a provider of websites, software and online strategy to campaigns.
On the whole, it’s a very exciting time, says California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “The days of the clipboards are gone,” he said, “but not that long ago it was all highlighters, white boards and precinct maps.”
Prior to his current role, Newsom was elected mayor of San Francisco in 2003 — the city’s youngest mayor in 100 years — and was re-elected in 2007 with 72 percent of the vote. He was named the Most Social Mayor in America by reputation management firm Samepoint in 2010, following a study that measured social media influence. Newsom is writing a book on how citizens can use social media, technology and available government data to cut through bureaucratic red tape and redesign government in their own image.
Technology is more prevalent and easier to for candidates to harness, but it isn’t a sure thing. “You still have to engage people and get them to take action. The focus has to be on converting,” said Ryan Davis, director of social media for Blue State Digital, the firm behind the development and management of President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 online campaign.
The key to organizing a strong campaign is being aware of everything one’s supporters are doing and encouraging activism, said NationBuilder’s Green. “The goal is to always be trying to get people to take on more responsibility,” he said.