Democratic Governor Dan Malloy and his Republican challenger Tom Foley have found that one battlefield in their electoral war has become more important since they opposed one another in 2010: social media.
As Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites have become more embedded into Americans’ daily life, politicians across the country have clamored to create accounts and engineer positive public images by sharing photos, favorable news coverage and soliloquies with thousands of followers. Malloy and Foley are no exception to the trend, with each maintaining a Twitter account and Facebook page in addition to their official websites.
Though both have embraced social media, it’s not clear that winning the Twitter war will lead to electoral success. Malloy’s campaign twitter, @DanMalloyCT, has over 8,500 followers compared to under 3,000 for Tom Foley’s @TomFoleyCT. Yet in the Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters released yesterday, Malloy trailed Foley by six percentage points.
Still, Gary Rose, chairman of the department of government and politics at Sacred Heart University, said an effective social media strategy could ultimately push one candidate over the edge in what is considered one of the tightest gubernatorial contests in the country.
“It’s particularly important for younger voters,” Rose said. “This could be the tiebreaker.”
In addition to his campaign account, Malloy has a separate account for his activities as governor, @GovDanMalloy, with over 30,000 followers. While Malloy tweets from both his campaign and his office account everyday — often many times each day — Foley sometimes goes several days without tweeting. He was particularly prolific, however, on Labor Day, posting several photos of supporters at a parade in Newtown.
Mark McNulty, communications director for the Foley campaign, said he aims to make the Foley Twitter presence as positive as possible. The campaign’s social media strategy is not aimed at attracting undecided voters as followers.
“The only people you’re really touching are extreme partisans on either side,” McNulty said.
He added that he thinks the true benefits of the Twitter account are reaped when followers retweet posts so that their followers, who may be undecided voters, see them.
In late July, a new Twitter and Facebook page called FoleyFactCheck appeared. Both post links to articles critical of Foley. No organization or individual claims the account. On Aug. 27, FoleyFactCheck tweeted a photograph of Foley’s house, with a message accusing him of hypocrisy in calling Malloy out of touch.
The Malloy campaign team did not respond to requests for comment. Devon Puglia, a spokesman for the Connecticut Democratic Party, declined to comment on Malloy’s social media strategy.
Rose said that for Malloy and Foley, social media is an important “part of the toolkit.”
“Gone are the days of the precinct captain going door to door,” Rose said.
Joe Visconti, the Tea Party Republican who qualified to appear on the ballot as an independent, said Facebook allowed him to mobilize supporters to gather signatures in support of his candidacy. The site helped him gather over 10,000, clearing the hurdle of 7,500 he needed.
The Quinnipiac poll showed seven percent of likely voters support Visconti; He attributes that in large part to his social media presence. Because he hasn’t had the funds to make ad buys on television or radio, he has released his campaign videos on Facebook and YouTube. Unlike Foley and Malloy, he personally controls all of his social media accounts.
“I love to engage,” Visconti said. “Go on Facebook, message me, make a comment on the photo I put up today.”
Eric Stern ’15, who served two years on the board of the Yale College Democrats and interned at a political public relations company this summer, said Twitter is a particularly important platform for reaching young voters, and has a more diverse audience than other social networking sites.
Stern thinks candidates’ social media strategies could affect the way Yale students participate in the election.
“If Malloy were to engage Yale students through social media, and, of course, other forms of media, and get unexpectedly high student turnout and turnout among young people, he could exceed expectations,” Stern said.
Though Twitter is potentially very useful for candidates, it can also be very dangerous. Stern noted he most often hears about politicians’ Twitter use when they or someone on their communications staff publishes something damaging.
“It’s usually like an intern accidentally tweets an inappropriate photo or something completely insensitive,” Stern said. “You don’t often hear about when campaigns are doing it really well. For that reason both Malloy and Foley are doing a pretty good job.”
In December 2013, 18 percent of American adults used Twitter, compared to eight percent in December 2010.