Candidates turned to social media in legislative races

By Joe Beck

Digital media continued their march toward prominence in state and local politics last week with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all playing visible roles in House of Delegates campaigns in the 18th and 29th districts.

At least three of the four candidates in the two races relied on online communications to connect with followers and potential followers.

President Obama’s two presidential campaigns have been praised by political pros from both parties for their innovative use of digital media in targeting, hard-to-reach corners of the electorate – voters under 30, single women and racial and ethnic minorities. In the aftermath of Obama’s success in turning out his supporters, candidates with national aspirations are studying his campaign as a model for their own online strategies.

The races in the Northern Shenandoah Valley this year lacked the sophisticated, well-funded software applications of national campaigns, but several candidates still relied on social media to a greater extent than ever before in down ballot races.

Larry Yates, who ran as an independent in the 29th District, said he took some young voters by surprise with his fluency in uploading YouTube videos about his campaign.

Yates’s collection of videos included scenes from candidate forums, testimonials from supporters and messages from the candidate himself. Yates, 63, said the videos appeared to strike a chord when he referred young voters to them.

“Every time I mentioned that to somebody, their eyes would light up,” Yates said, adding that, “it’s probably because I’m an old guy,” expected to lack Internet savvy.

Yates’s opponent, Del.-elect Mark Berg, R-Winchester was contacted by telephone. Berg said he would pass along questions about digital media to his campaign manager for comment, but the manager did not return the phone call.

Nick Blessing, the campaign manager for Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall, said their campaign focused heavily on Facebook. As of election night, the Webert Facebook page showed 1,865 likes. The most recent postings included an Election Day photo of the beaming candidate in a thumbs up pose and a brief account of an event held for a local politician who is undergoing treatment for cancer.

“In the overall spectrum, it’s been an exceptionally useful tool,” Blessing said of Facebook. “Moving forward, every campaign, it’s one of the first tools for them to have, especially for (reaching) younger folks.”

Social media can help candidates short on name recognition and money gain badly needed free exposure. But Blessing said traditional forms of media – print, radio and TV advertising, billboards, yard signs and direct mailings – remain important to running a credible campaign.

Blessing said Twitter also played a part in spreading the word about his candidate, but its audience is “a little more of a cult following. A little younger.”

“It’s a different kind of audience than Facebook,” Blessing said. “My grandparents are on Facebook now, and my dad and my mom, but they wouldn’t touch Twitter.”

Timothy Morris, the campaign manager for Democrat Colin Harris in the 18th District, said social media projects helped raise sums of money that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve in past elections.

“It’s been a good boom for us to get grassroots support,” Morris said of social media.

Campaign finance reports filed at the State Elections Board show Harris held an edge in contributions received during the summer, although Webert pulled ahead in September and October.

Morris described Harris as the “mastermind” behind the campaign’s online strategy.

“Colin thinks of everything and how we can let people know what’s going on,” Morris said. “That’s all he thinks about, and he’s always trying to find new ways of getting the word out.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com