Facebook proving to be accurate barometer of Campaign ’12 opinion swings

In the early 60s a new social medium called television played a big role in Presidential election campaigns. It would appear that another new social medium known as Facebook is similarly playing a large part in the 2012 campaign, albeit in a different way.

The 1960 Presidential campaign was a closely-fought battle between Republican former Vice-President Richard Nixon and his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy.  According to legend, it was the first televised debate between the two men that was a major factor in turning public opinion over to Kennedy’s favor.

Kennedy certainly knew how to use television to his advantage. It was the specter of Nixon’s recently hospitalized, five o’clock-beard-shadowed and perspiring face on black and white TV (he refused to wear makeup) next to Kennedy’s calm, rested, tanned and makeup-applied appearance that played a big role in his victory–but perhaps not as major as was first thought, according to Wikipedia:

The key turning point of the campaign were the four Kennedy-Nixon debates; they were the first presidential debates held on television, and thus attracted enormous publicity. Nixon insisted on campaigning until just a few hours before the first debate started; he had not completely recovered from his hospital stay and thus looked pale, sickly, underweight, and tired. He also refused makeup for the first debate, and as a result his beard stubble showed prominently on the era’s black-and-white TV screens.

Nixon’s poor appearance on television in the first debate is reflected by the fact that his mother called him immediately following the debate to ask if he was sick. Kennedy, by contrast, rested and prepared extensively beforehand, appearing tanned, confident, and relaxed during the debate.

An estimated 70 million viewers watched the first debate. It is often claimed that people who watched the debate on television overwhelmingly believed Kennedy had won, while radio listeners (a smaller audience) believed Nixon had won. A study has found that the alleged viewer‐listener disagreement is unsupported. After it had ended, polls showed Kennedy moving from a slight deficit into a slight lead over Nixon.

For the remaining three debates Nixon regained his lost weight, wore television makeup, and appeared more forceful than his initial appearance. However, up to 20 million fewer viewers watched the three remaining debates than the first debate. Political observers at the time believed that Kennedy won the first debate, Nixon won the second and third debates, and that the fourth debate, which was seen as the strongest performance by both men, was a draw.

Appearances can therefore be deceiving. This was particularly true in 1964, when the former Vice-President and incumbent Lyndon Johnson was seeking re-election–he became President after the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, completed that term of office, and was now seeking his own.

In that election Johnson would face Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. This Wikipedia entry describes how Johnson was able to swing public opinion his way, by–amongst other methods–making Goldwater appear as if he was a warmonger and had rather extreme views:

Johnson positioned himself as a moderate and succeeded in portraying Goldwater as an extremist. Goldwater had a habit of making blunt statements about war, nuclear weapons, and economics that could be turned against him. Most famously, the Johnson campaign broadcast a television commercial on September 7 dubbed the “Daisy Girl” ad, which featured a little girl picking petals from a daisy in a field, counting the petals, which then segues into a launch countdown and a nuclear explosion. The ads were in response to Goldwater’s advocacy of “tactical” nuclear weapons use in Vietnam.

“Confessions of a Republican”, another Johnson ad, features a monologue from a man who tells us that he had previously voted for Eisenhower and Nixon, but now worries about the “men with strange ideas”, “weird groups” and “the head of the Ku Klux Klan” who were supporting Goldwater: he concludes that “either they’re not Republicans, or I’m not”.

Voters increasingly viewed Goldwater as a right wing fringe candidate—his slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right” was successfully parodied by the Johnson campaign into “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”, or “In your heart, you know he might” (as in push the nuclear button), or even “In your heart, he’s too far right” (some cynics wore buttons saying “Even Johnson is better than Goldwater!”)

The “Daisy Girl” TV ad was run only once by the campaign. You can watch it here.

Flash forward now almost 50 years. While political ads have gotten much more sophisticated in their approach (at least, for the most part), the role of opinion modifier–if you will–falls to the Internet, particularly social media like Facebook, with its 1 billion members worldwide. Thoughts are shared instantly…which is a good reason why, according to TechHive, Facebook is now considered to be a fairly accurate barometer of social opinion, especially in the 2012 Presidential Campaign:

Social networking has become critical to the 2012 presidential campaign and one analyst said Facebook is accurately predicting swings in the election polls.

While Republican candidate Mitt Romney has gained strength and Facebook followers since the Oct. 3 presidential debate, President Barack Obama also remains strong and continues to grow his social base, according to Ian Lurie, CEO of Portent, an Internet marketing and online tracking company.

“Social media is making a big, big difference in how we connect with these candidates,” Lurie said, “What’s going on in social media really reflects what’s going on in the election as a whole…. Of all the different social networks, Facebook is telling us the most about how the candidates are doing.”

Facebook has its pulse on the election more than other social networks, such as Google+ and Twitter, because of its huge user base. The company has more than 1 billion active monthly users around the world. There are 168 million Facebook users in the U.S., and 154 million of them are of voting age.

Both campaigns are putting a lot of money and muscle into using Facebook, in particular, to reach potential voters, get their messages across and motivate people to cast ballots on Nov. 6.

This is more true this year than ever before, according to Lurie.

In the 2008 campaign Republican Presidential candidate John McCain–much like Nixon and TV before him–did not embrace social media or even the Internet, claiming to not know how to send email or go online.

History has shown that those candidates that are able to use technology to their advantage have an enormous edge over their opponents.

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