Does social media success translate to electoral success?

Twitter emerges as a better indicator of electoral outcomes than Facebook. As close observers of all aspects of effective public communication, we’re still pondering a question around Hillenby House about the recent mid-term elections: Does social media success translate to electoral success? With all the buzz that resulted from the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking use of social media now more than two years ago, the answer might be a reflexive yes. But as we’re prone to do around here, we wanted to dig into some data and take a closer look.

To be clear, we didn’t do a comprehensive study of hundreds of House, Senate, gubernatorial and statehouse races. We did a back-of-the-envelop glance at 13 Senate campaigns, simply comparing the number of votes each candidate received to their number of Facebook “Likes” and Twitter followers, as those tallies stood during election week (to view these numbers, please click here). We chose these races because they were either close contests or drew significant national media and grassroots attention. We wanted high-energy, high-intensity campaigns with high levels of public engagement.

Perhaps the most interesting and surprising insight was that Twitter was a better indicator of success in these races than Facebook. The majority of the campaigns — nine to be specific — were won by candidates with more Twitter followers than their opponents. But of those nine winning candidates, only five had more Facebook “Likes.” And out of all 13 races, only one winning candidate had more Facebook “Likes” and less Twitter followers.

There were four races that really stood out in this crowd. In these elections, the winning candidate had a lower number of both Facebook “Likes” and Twitter followers. These four races were in Connecticut, Delaware, Alaska and Washington.

Let’s look first at the Connecticut and Delaware races. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon tapped into the legions of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fans that know her as the organization’s CEO and occasional ringside character. Christine O’Donnell in Delaware was a Tea Party favorite who generated significant national attention with her provocative comments and “I’m not a witch” video. These two campaigns failed to leverage their social media support into voter turnout likely because, as our friend and social media expert Will Robinson has surmised, many followers were from out-of-state.

The real mysteries here however are Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Patty Murray in Washington. Murkowski, the all-but-certified winner of her campaign, was re-elected with the most grassroots of all grassroots tactics — a write-in campaign. In fact, she will likely become the first U.S. Senate candidate to win a write-in campaign since 1954. Yet during election week, she had less than half the Facebook “Likes” of her Republican opponent and about 20% fewer Twitter followers.

Patty Murray also appears to be an outlier to the 2010 trend. Unlike the battle for social media fans and followers, which Dino Rossi won handily, the election itself was tight and took days to resolve. Perhaps for both Murkowski and Murray, the advantages of incumbency, including a proven boots-on-the-ground grassroots network, was more powerful than the social network.

After looking at the data of these 13 races, we found ourselves asking even more questions: Might social media success correlate better to political fundraising than actual votes on Election Day? Will winning candidates who developed significant social media followings, like Marco Rubio of Florida, be able to maintain those followings and leverage them for future activities? Should the political community — as the private sector has been doing — engage in a much more robust discussion about social media ROI?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions and any other comments you might have. From our perspective, it’s clear that some of the old rules of effective communication are just as relevant to today’s social media frontiers: set your goal, know your audience, and develop your strategies and tactics accordingly. When you think about it, maybe that solves a couple of the social media mysteries that our inquisitiveness at Hillenby House has uncovered.