Social Media Changing the Landscape in Wisconsin's Recall Elections
For the most part, challengers are more savvy than incumbents when it comes to Twitter and Facebook.
When state Sen. Alberta Darling sent out this tweet to her nearly 360 Twitter followers, she didn’t use a penny of the more than $1 million in campaign cash she has raised so far.
“Check out this editorial from the Journal Sentinel about the complaint filed regarding Citizen Action and my opponent http://ow.ly/5U8jF,” the River Hills Republican incumbent tweeted.
Darling’s Democartic opponent in Tuesday’s 8th District recall race, state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay), fired her own missile with this tweet, “UPDATE: WHAT IS SHE HIDING?: New Details Emerge in Alberta Darling Coverup http://dld.bz/ajWCV.”
Candidates tossing out accusations against their opponents is nothing new in politics.
But in an era where social media is playing a key role in every aspect of society, the candidates in Wisconsin’s recall elections are taking note and harnessing the power of the tools that were key to President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.
The candidates are using both Twitter and Facebook to lay out their positions, trade barbs with opponents, provide details on upcoming appearances, post photos from the campaign trail, and even tell supporters where to get yard signs.
While all the candidates are using social media to a certain extent, it’s the challengers in the upcoming recall elections — six Democrats and two Republicans — who have more aggressively tapped in to Twitter and Facebook as part of their efforts to unseat the incumbents.
While all 16 candidates in the race have Facebook pages, only four of the eight incumbent senators are using Twitter to get their message out.
And just because a candidate has a Twitter account or Facebook page doesn’t mean it’s being utilized as effectively as it could be.
Take, for example, the 32nd Senate District race in La Crosse, where Jennifer Shilling, a Democratic state representative is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke.
Since Aug. 1, Shilling has posted more than 30 tweets to the more than 740 people who follow her on Twitter. From pictures of Bowzer from Sha Na Na at her campaign headquarters to details on endorsements and lots of photos, Shilling’s campaign tweets at least twice a day. And every one of her tweets links to her campaign Facebook page, which is “liked” by more than 3,700 people.
Kapanke, on the other hand, has tweeted once since Aug. 1: “Heading to Features in West Salem for breakfast with friends.”
And while Kapanke does have a personal Facebook page with about 2,600 friends, he has made just one post since Aug. 1 — the same one found on his Twitter account.
The fact that the Democratic challengers in particular are relying heavily on Twitter and Facebook shouldn't be surprising, one expert says, since social media played such a key role in the February protests at the state Capitol that were the impetus for the recalls.
"That was a movement that was fueled by Twitter and Facebook," said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "That morphed pretty readily into the recall efforts. Facebook and Twitter were used to collect signatures. The Democrats did a better job of that."
If you look on the campaign Facebook page of most challengers, you'll see people debating the issues, exchanging links to related news articles, posting photos and more.
But you won't find that kind of interaction on the Facebook pages of some of the incumbents. On Darling's Facebook page, users can comment on her posts but no one is allowed to post on her “wall.”
The same is true for Republicans incumbents Kapanke, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Bob Cowles of Green Bay.
Meredith Turney, a new media consultant who primarily works for Republicans, recommends candidates use a Facebook fan page rather than a traditional personal page.
“Fan pages are better for public figures and campaigns because you can have unlimited followers as opposed to the 5,000 limit on a personal page,” said Turney, who is based in California.
“Also, if you have a ‘like’ button on a campaign web site, it's easier to have people connect with your page,"she added. "A fan page doesn't need to give permission for people to connect with. You just ‘like’ it and then you get access to its content.”
The other difference between the incumbents and challengers is the sheer number of people whom they’re connecting with on social media.
The current state senators have a total of about 15,000 fans on Facebook; the challengers have nearly 22,000. And that doesn’t count the thousands of fans on independent recall Facebook pages that target the incumbents — and benefit those seeking to unseat them. Cowles, for example, has 233 people who "like" his campaign's Facebook page — although there is a “Recall Sen. Bob Cowles” page with more than 1,800 fans.
The gap is even wider in the Twitterverse, where the incumbents have a total of 1,200 followers and the challengers have more than 3,100.
Burden says it’s somewhat surprising that incumbents would lag behind in social media followers. Most of these politicians have been in office for years and should have had a huge head start with collecting likes, fans and friends on Facebook.
"In general, I think incumbents would do a better job," he said. "They have an established presence, probably already have Facebook pages that were up from their last election. It’s a little easier for them to continue that right through the recall process."
One reason is that incumbents — particularly Republicans — may be doing less on Facebook or limiting what can be posted is to avoid problems with those who want to see them recalled.
Stephan Thompson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said if any GOP senators are keeping a low-profile, it's because of the mass of negativity that’s been launched upon them.
"There’s been a lot of vile things posted on social networking sites,” he said. “If they are a little more controlled on our side, that’s probably one of the reasons."
Thompson said on the Republican side, there's been death threats, as well as "nasty" e-mails and phone calls. "I have never seen it this bad before," he said.
However, the Wisconsin GOP as a whole is not keeping a low profile. Thompson says they have 13,821 Facebook followers, as well as 4,746 Twitter followers — and they post frequently on both. The state Democratic Party comes just below the GOP’s numbers, with 11,098 Facebook followers and 3,933 Twitter followers.
"We use it as a rapid response tool," Thompson said. "It’s a great way to get info out through our social networking sites, and it helps us create an echo chamber."
And regardless of how candidates use social media, Thompson makes one point that can’t be disputed.
"Social networking has completely changed politics and political campaigning in general."