Political candidates flock to Facebook

New Haven Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John DeStefano Jr. doesn’t just want you to vote for him — he wants you to friend him.

With elections coming up in November, candidates across Connecticut are reaching out to college and high school students by creating Facebook profiles. These profiles, the campaigns say, are an effort to increase candidates’ name recognition and engage younger voters by letting them interact with candidates — or at least with the young communications directors who run the candidates’ profiles.

John Gauthier, DeStefano’s press secretary, said DeStefano’s campaign was trying to emulate the success of Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont SOM ’80, who built up a base of support among bloggers during his successful primary campaign against incumbent Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, who is now running as an independent. Gauthier said Lamont had been ahead of other campaigns in reaching out to voters online, and campaigns like DeStefano’s, which traditionally rely upon a base of support among union members, are working to improve their online presence through blogs and Facebook.

“There are X amount of people on our e-mail list, but there are X amount of kids times 50 on the Facebook,” Gauthier said.

Gauthier, who graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2005 and has his own Facebook profile, said the campaign is using Facebook jargon in putting together some literature for a campaign across Connecticut college campuses. The fliers, he said, will have a picture of DeStefano and the slogan “Facebook Me.”

“The whole thing is kind of silly, but if it makes you feel comfortable and more familiar with a candidate, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

DeStefano’s foray into using “friend” as a verb is part of a Facebook initiative called Election2006. Facebook programmers created profiles for gubernatorial, congressional, and senate candidates and then invited candidates to personalize their profiles and reach out to the site’s users, Facebook spokeswoman Melanie Deitch said.

“It provides an opportunity for them to engage and communicate with a demographic who in recent years their engagement in voting has gone down,” she said.

The Election2006 system allows users to indicate their support for a set of candidates and then publicizes the percentage of users who favor each candidate. The Facebook numbers show something of a skew towards more liberal candidates — Lamont polls 9 points ahead of Lieberman, though professional polls place Lieberman slightly ahead of Lamont. Congressional races also show a similar slant. The 2nd Congressional District’s Democratic candidate, Joseph Courtney, is 7 points ahead of incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, though a recent professional poll places Courtney just 1 point ahead.

Michael Sohn, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, another Republican, said the congressman “gets a kick” out of his profile, which is managed by campaign staff who are making a special effort to reach college students. Sohn said helpful conversations take place on Facebook wall postings and within the two groups in support of Shays.

“It’s speaking to students, and they’re having a conversation that they can relate to,” he said.

He also said that the college Republicans who support Shays have been successful in announcing campaign events through Facebook.

Certainly, though, that conversation is of a different tone — more casual and sometimes more contentious — than conversation elsewhere in a campaign, where candidates usually appear before supportive groups with campaign signs already posted on every surface a news photographer could use as a backdrop. On Facebook, one poster on Lamont’s wall wrote “I heart Ned Lamont forever!!!”, while Lieberman’s wall features an ongoing debate between Lieberman supporters and a Lamont supporter who called Lieberman “drunk (with power).”

Scott Overland, Lieberman’s deputy press secretary, said the campaign reads all the wall postings and has never deleted any of them, though Overland said the campaign does not condone posts that insult Lamont.

Of course, elections being elections, the candidates tweak the image presented to the public through their profiles. Lieberman, running as an independent who emphasizes his bipartisanship, lists himself as a “Moderate,” as does Shays, whose support for the Iraq War is being questioned by Democratic challenger Diane Farrell.

And Gauthier, manager of DeStefano’s profile, changed his candidate’s picture early on. An initial shot had shown the prospective governor drinking from a bottle of soda manufactured in West Hartford. But after one wall poster commented on DeStefano’s “follow[ing] the trend of people holding and pointing at some sort of beverage in their profile pic,” the picture was changed. Now, it is a more distinguished black-and-white shot, and there is no bottled beverage in sight.

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