WASHINGTON — The candidates in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District have already raised more money than in the district’s last five congressional races combined, but in an effort to win over voters not swayed by radio and television ads, the campaigns have also taken up social media for the first time.
Both Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and Democratic challenger John Delaney established their Facebook and Twitter accounts in the fall and winter of 2011. During the primary season, the Delaney campaign regularly attacked state Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, for siding with “special interests and credit card companies before Maryland families.” Garagiola shot back with accusations that Delaney was dodging debates and refusing to answer questions about his business record.
Bartlett largely avoided online shouting matches, interspersing his comments on rising gas prices and veterans’ affairs with reminders on early voting and redistricting.
Now that they have secured their party nominations, the candidates’ use of social media has gone in two very different directions. Bartlett, the 10-term incumbent, hasn’t tweeted since May 18. In comparison, Delaney’s campaign tweeted throughout the summer, even though updates were less frequent than in the lead-up to the primary.
“Social media is a part of our communications plan, and it’s important to the campaign because that’s where our voters are now,” said Will McDonald, a spokesman for the Delaney campaign.
Delaney may have outpaced Bartlett on Twitter — he has 200 more followers and about 1,000 more tweets — but Bartlett dominates on Facebook. Three times as many people have liked his profile over Delaney’s there, and the campaign regularly engages its followers with polls and discussion questions. Delaney’s Facebook page largely mirrors his Twitter profile, but with a stronger focus on sharing photos from campaign events.
Bradley Shear, a Bethesda lawyer specializing in social media and Internet law, said social media has become another “arrow in the quiver” the Bartlett and Delaney campaigns can use to sway potential voters — especially when both campaigns are posting record-breaking fundraising numbers.
“In a close race, social media may be able to make a difference if those who are utilizing social media are likely or potential voters,” Shear said. “You just don’t know where those extra couple of thousand of votes will come from.”
In an email, Bartlett for Congress campaign manager Ted Dacey said the decision to focus on Facebook over Twitter was not a strategic move. But Shear said Bartlett’s message could still reach its target audience.
“If a campaign believes that their supporters may be on Facebook, they might want to focus more of their resources on Facebook. It really comes down to resources and strategically determining which platforms provide the most bang for the buck,” Shear said.
Neither did Shear fault the Delaney campaign for spreading the same message through multiple social media platforms.
“In a political campaign, you want to cover all your bases,” Shear said.
As the campaigns rack up followers, likes, retweets and shares, they have also tapped their online supporters for donations — a strategy capitalized on in 2008 by then-Sen. Barack Obama, Shear said.
“I think any avenue you can utilize to increase donations is important,” Shear said. “Online, it’s been proven the last several election terms to be a very successful avenue to reach those that would not traditionally give to a campaign.”
The Delaney campaign in late June tested the merits of online fundraising with the “Highway 40 Donor Drive,” during which the campaign sent out 15 tweets over eight days about fundraising. McDonald said the experiment proved a successful way of soliciting donations online — which may be why the campaign recently launched another online fundraiser.
The Bartlett campaign, meanwhile, regularly invites its online followers to participate in “$10 Tuesday” and “$5 Friday.”
In individual contributions, Bartlett had by the end of June already raised over $300,000 — three times as much as he did for his 2010 re-election campaign. He was still dwarfed by Delaney, who raised over $1 million. That amount does not take into account the roughly $1.7 million Delaney himself donated to his campaign.
“Social media has been just one of the ways people have shown support for the campaign,” Dacey said. “We are very pleased with people all across the district digging deep to generously support the congressman’s campaign.”
Despite the potential benefits of social media, political campaigns should still treat it like any other form of official communication, Shear said. Flooding the accounts with constant pleas for campaign donations or updates lacking meaningful content could easily cause a campaign to lose followers. During an election season, however, Shear said he would err on the side of being more aggressive.
“At the end of the day,” Shear said, “candidates need to have a full blown digital strategy that understands these issues.”