Websites give vague outlooks for races
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If Facebook "likes" decided the general election, Sen. Joe Manchin again would see a landslide victory against John Raese, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney would squeak out a narrow win over Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and Darrell McGraw, the state's longtime attorney general, would be unseated by Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey.
The results would be quite different if Twitter users were left to decide candidates' fates: Manchin would win by an even wider margin, Tomblin would trounce Maloney and McGraw would get to keep his job.
These Internet popularity contests may not be the most accurate way of polling voters, but a candidates' number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers can give some insight into the amount of popular support he or she enjoys.
Manchin's official Facebook page had 9,883 likes as of Thursday afternoon, while just 1,610 Facebook users had liked the "John Raese for Senate" page. On Twitter, Manchin had 6,417 followers on his official U.S. Senate account and 1,776 on his campaign account. Raese had just 287.
Further down the ticket in the governor's race, Maloney's campaign page had 2,732 Facebook likes and 1,080 Twitter followers. Tomblin trailed on Facebook by a relatively narrow margin with 2,679 likes and won narrowly on Twitter with 1,731 followers.
Republican attorney general candidate Patrick Morrisey is one of the state's most popular candidates on Facebook — in any race, from any party — with 4,741 likes as of Thursday afternoon.
Incumbent Attorney General Darrell McGraw, meanwhile, had 1,108 likes on Facebook, split between two pages. McGraw's campaign Facebook page had 658 while a separate Facebook page for the attorney general's office had 450 likes. The latter account is not used for campaign-related posts, however.
It's a slightly different story on Twitter.
Morrisey had only 304 Twitter followers while McGraw's official "WV Attorney General" account had 1,131. McGraw's campaign does not appear to have a Twitter account.
Obviously, this isn't the most scientific of political polls. There are many problems with using Facebook or Twitter to predict a race. There's no way to tell, for instance, if the people who are "liking" or "following" the candidates are registered voters. They might not even live in West Virginia.
It's also common practice for users to "like" and "follow" both candidates in a race simply because they want to receive news and updates from both parties.
There are other issues, too.
Facebook and Twitter do not publish state-by-state totals of users, but West Virginians rank 40th in the nation in Internet usage, according to 2010 Census data. Just 60 percent of Mountain State residents access the Internet from home.
Still, state political operatives say social media are now a necessary addition to all those yard signs, mailers, TV commercials, newspaper ads and football program advertisements.
"We see it as a bridge to the future," said Rob Cornelius, spokesman for the West Virginia Young Republicans.
"You can direct your message very specifically. When I buy a TV ad in Charleston, I'm wasting 65 percent of my money because most of those people live in Ohio and Kentucky."
Facebook advertising, meanwhile, can be targeted to people who also like Mitt Romney, or Cracker Barrel, or the Andy Griffith Show, helping campaigns home in on a very select group of users. Candidates also can advertise to people in specific ZIP codes, so they do not waste money on people who cannot cast a vote for them.
And it's cheap.
Cornelius said the Young Republicans purchased Facebook ads in the spring primary race against Democrat agriculture commissioner candidate Walt Helmick. The group spent less than $100, and more than 200,000 people saw the ad.
Chris Stadelman, who is running Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's re-election campaign, said social media advertising is not a substitute for more traditional means of communication like newspaper or television ads. He said it's important for candidates to have an online presence, however.
"It's certainly somewhere you have to be," he said.
He said Tomblin's campaign is more focused on Facebook than Twitter.
"Twitter tends to be reporters and more connected political types while Facebook has a broader range," he said. "Facebook is still a better way to reach the average voter."
Cornelius agreed. While Facebook was once a playground for college students, Cornelius said he has noticed a significant change in its users.
"Facebook is not for 25-year-olds. It's really become a family album, a 'catching up with folks after church' kind of thing. It's really different than what it was," he said.
Facebook data prove Cornelius and Stadleman's point.
With a few clicks on any Facebook page, users can see how many likes the page has, where it is most popular and what age groups it is most popular with.
Manchin's page is most popular among users 25 to 44 years old while most of Raese's Facebook fans are between 45 and 54 years old. Tomblin's Facebook page is most popular among users 35 to 44 years old, and Maloney is most popular with Facebook users between 25 and 34, and 45 and 54 years old.
McGraw is most popular with users aged 45 to 64 while Morrissey is most popular among 35- to 54-year-olds.
Cornelius said he doesn't worry if Democrats have more likes or followers than Republicans. He said it's more important for a campaign to get its message to the people who want to hear it.
"It lets you generate conversation and generate attention you didn't have before," he said.