Pundits mock Palin’s wacky posts, but when it comes to the 2012 presidential race, she’s got the other Republican candidates playing catch-up. By Shushannah Walshe.
Sarah Palin passed the 2 million Facebook “friends” mark Thursday, a feat heralded by supporters and tweeted about by the reporters who watch her every move. It’s hard to argue that the former Alaska governor's social-media strategy isn’t working for her. Every 140-character pronouncement on Twitter or Facebook post is immediately gobbled up by her throngs of supporters and instantly reported on by the mainstream media.
“When people look at Sarah Palin as a candidate they see someone who could win the primary, but can’t win a general election, and if that’s something she wants, she needs to reach a broader population than those on Facebook.”
No other major candidate has the social-media presence of Sarah Palin and she’s been doing it mostly alone on her ever-present BlackBerry since her spokeswoman departed in February. “Sarah Palin is the leader of SarahPAC. She is her own spokesperson. She knows where she stands on things,” says SarahPAC staffer Rebecca Mansour. “She is in control of everything on her Facebook page. She is very hands-on. Anything that goes under her name is hers.”
And if this unorthodox strategy is working then why change it, is the attitude among the Palin camp. But as her success with this medium makes the other potential 2012 candidates play catch-up, the question remains whether or not she will have to adopt a more traditional approach with the mainstream media—and just how effective her reach actually is in getting voters come this November.
In a short time, she has become a model of how to use social media among politicians. For Jordan Raynor, president of Direct Media Strategies, a Republican online communications consulting firm, who uses Palin as an example to other clients, “She shifted the thinking of politicians in the way they think about media consumption and the way they think about communicating directly with constituents and voters.”
• Shushannah Walshe: Palin Invades New YorkDespite her success, there are questions about whether she can continue to succeed without a more traditional strategy. “Sarah Palin is relying on Facebook and Twitter like a crutch, which means that she’ll never get any better at dealing with the press,” says a Republican strategist not affiliated with any potential 2012 presidential candidates. “If she chooses to become a candidate for higher office, her sole reliance on social media—and her desire to only communicate on her terms—will ensure that she is ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the traditional media she’ll be forced to deal with during a campaign.”
But for the moment everyone’s “friending” Palin. As one longtime GOP adviser put it, “Everybody wants attention, everybody wants it, so there is a bit of jealousy among the boys.”
None of the other possible Republican candidates for 2012 have been able to reach her number of friends, fans, and followers. “She has defied the limits of this kind of thing,” says a Republican operative with close ties to Palin. “She is still massively more influential than other would-be candidates.”
But, while other “would-be” candidates are aggressively engaged in social media, it’s Palin that grabs the headlines. Joe Rospars, the founder of Blue State Digital, a social-media strategy firm for Democrats, says it won’t be clear until Election Day 2010 whether her strategy is working, but he says her social-media focus is more about grabbing those headlines and promoting herself than connecting with supporters and advocating issues.
“There’s a long tradition in sports of ensuring favorable calls by working the refs,” says Rospars, who also worked as Obama’s new-media director for the campaign. “The key word is organization because what the president has done since his campaign started in 2007 and also when he worked as a community organizer is that it is not an all about me and what I’m doing, but as an organization it’s all about you. What are our common problems, our common solutions and how are you going to stand up and take a leadership role?”
Sarah Palin highlights her Mama Grizzlies ad on her facebook page.
While Mitt Romney may trail in number of fans (he’s nearing 500,000) on Facebook, his staff has stepped up his social-media presence and is closely tracking how effective their outreach to the public actually is. His social-media team will post and link to endorsed candidates’ Facebook pages or fundraising efforts by measuring the actual number of people who click from their Facebook page to Romney’s endorsed candidates’ sites. Romney’s team says they have the most effective strategy judging by these numbers, which they stress are an essential part of any new-media effort, especially for a politician who is analytical by nature.
“He is really involved. He is such a numbers guy,” said the person who handles online activity for the Romney camp. “The use of digital is great, but also very tangible. When the governor puts up a photo on his Facebook page and 1,900-plus people commenting within five hours, it’s very powerful.”
While it is well known that Palin does her own tweeting, according to his staff Romney also does his own tweets. But what separates them is the style of their tweets. “Part of what Sarah Palin does is she really uses the medium to comment on the news of the day. She enjoys it,” Mansour said. “She’s almost a quasi-blogger in a way.”
While Romney may not tweet as frequently, he still has an engaged Facebook audience. His last post had about 11,700 interactions with supporters. The team says despite the fervor, it’s not just about Facebook and Twitter, and that other new media—like YouTube and mobile apps—can’t be ignored. They also made Romney’s book tour for No Apology accessible to more than the people at his book signings, uploading videos of the events and even interviews with people in line at the book signings.
But Romney’s team won’t be eschewing mainstream media while they pursue social media. “I think you are going to find a balance between the two,” the Romney digital strategist said. “My inclination is that the governor will break news, both on traditional media and on his networks.”
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s PAC, Freedom First, is at it as well. Raynor pointed out that their digital strategy team is “top notch” and much of their new-media strategy is innovative including their Facebook town halls.
“We were the first politician to do something like that and it was terrific. The governor really enjoyed it and he talked directly to several hundred if not 1,000 supporters who want to learn more about him,” says communications director Alex Conant.
Unlike Romney or Palin, Pawlenty supporters can also donate directly to his endorsed candidates from his PAC’s website. Although Pawlenty has less of a social-media fan base, they don’t see it as a competition, instead focusing on trying to do a better job of organizing online for the GOP.
Conant concedes that “both Palin and Romney do a terrific job online and obviously have exponentially more supporters and Facebook friends and the like than we do, largely because they have been on the national scene longer. But we think they do a good job and we don’t see us as competing at this time.”
Still there is little doubt that Palin dominates when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. “It’s a unique thing. It may not work for everybody, but it works for her.” SarahPAC staffer Rebecca Mansour said, “I think it works because there is intense media attention on her. She can tweet something and it can cause a news story. That’s an unusual situation to be in, therefore it’s a unique perspective in controlling the message because of that.”
And that’s exactly what Raynor says makes her dominate the medium: She’s the one with the BlackBerry in hand.
“She is genuinely doing it. It is her in front of a computer personally engaging with hundreds of thousands of people. That is a huge reason why she is so successful. Most politicians that are personally tweeting or updating their Facebook pages are going to be the most successful,” Raynor said. “Everybody believes it is her because it really is her, and that’s a really powerful thing,” she added.
But, for Palin the question is whether it’s possible to run a presidential campaign this way? Those around her say it’s unlikely.
“No, you can’t do it. Can’t do it without a traditional infrastructure,” says the same Republican operative with ties to Palin. “But, the trend is to move away from engaging the press on the press’ terms and [move toward] engaging the people on their own terms, especially on the right where we don’t get a fair shake with the press.”
Mansour agrees, “I don’t know if that’s possible in a campaign when the intensity is ratcheted up.”
“She can’t run [in 2012] based on a tweet. If she augments the tweets and Facebook with a lot more real on-the-ground campaigning and fundraising, then she’s really wanting it,” says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, who is watching her social media as an indicator of whether she’s in or out in 2012.
If Palin does jump into 2012, despite her intense disdain for most of the mainstream media, she will at some point obviously be forced to engage the press, simply so she can reach more voters.
“When people look at Sarah Palin as a candidate they see someone who could win the primary, but can’t win a general election, and if that’s something she wants, she needs to reach a broader population than those on Facebook despite how many people are on Facebook. And I don’t know how she rises above that,” says a Republican strategist.
Palin’s team isn’t shy, reacting to the “experts” offering unsolicited advice from the nation’s capital, especially if they see it as negative.
“The whole country is fed up with Washington, D.C., so it’s easy to tune out advice to the country and to us about how one should run one’s organization because they haven’t been running anything well lately,” Mansour said.
Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.