By Erica Christoffer
One of the first things state Rep. Greg Harris does in the morning is update his Facebook status.
“Greg Harris is [at] Chicago House bakery opening this am, community mental health meeting this pm, and Truman College Economy Forum tonight,” Harris wrote just before 5:30 a.m. Oct. 21.
Like many Facebook users, Harris lets his “friends” know what he’s up to. But as an elected official, Harris also uses Facebook as a new way to reach his constituents.
“I’m surprised at the number of constituents who found me,” said Harris, a Democrat who represents Illinois 13th District on Chicago’s Northside. “Who I hear from, I might not otherwise have contact with; they don’t call the district office.”
Harris is one local official who has jumped on the bandwagon of free communication through social networking websites, a tool proven successful for candidates seeking to connect with younger voters.
Christine Williams, a professor of international studies and government at Bentley University in Massachusetts, began investigating the impact of Facebook support on candidates’ vote counts in 2006. Her findings show it’s worth it for candidates to invest the time in Facebook pages.
“As for the effectiveness, we found that if a candidate had twice as many Facebook supporters as his or her opponent, it added a few percentage points to the vote share after controlling for things like money raised, media coverage, etc.,” Williams said.
Williams found that Facebook presence impacted both the 2006 congressional races and the 2008 presidential primaries, especially in caucus states. And she said the relationship was strong in predicting the youth vote turnout.
For example, her data shows the more support presidential candidate Barack Obama received from Facebook members in each state, the better he performed in that state’s nominating contest. After controlling for variables, the results show Obama’s vote share increased by nearly 0.4 percent.
Facebook support had an even greater impact on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s vote counts in the Democratic Presidential Primary, according to William’s study, estimating an increase of 1.1 percent.
Rep. Ruth Munson of Elgin, a Republican who represents Illinois’ 43rd District in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs, started her Facebook page over a year ago because she was intrigued by the communication her children, now 18 and 21, had with their friends.
“It gives me an insight into young people and what they’re doing,” said Munson, a software developer. How else could she talk with friends in Ireland, South Korea and with an intern at her office at the same time in a single morning, she asked.
“I’ve always tried to find ways to hear what people have to say. Every resource we have to do that we have to use,” said Munson, who is in a heated race against Democrat Keith Farnham, who does not have a Facebook account.
Farnham’s campaign manager John Valadez said they never thought about setting up a social networking profile. He also pointed out that profiles can be used for negative campaigning because it is offers a setting for people to post any information they choose.
Kim Martin, a political science professor at the Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida at Gainsville, said social networking sites could be an effective means for mobilizing young voters who traditionally have a poor showing at the polls.
“Young voters want to feel like they have a connection to a politician. To do this, the politician needs to create an image that the student can relate to,” said Martin, who is studying public officials’ effectiveness in reaching young voters through Facebook. “If a student can see that a politician likes skiing or the Godfather, it really puts the candidate’s personality into perspective.”
Martin said state and local public officials have not been using Facebook as much as politicians at the federal level. The Obama campaign, she said, has been extremely active.
“My research partner and I speculate that if politicians were to utilize this medium, they could reach more voters than could be imagined,” Martin said. “But of course it remains to be seen whether those voters will actually get out and vote.”
Harris, who is running uncontested this year, said about a quarter of his approximately 400 Facebook friends are in his Northside Chicago district. Munson has had similar success. But not everyone in the Illinois General Assembly has found social networking as useful.
Rep. Karen May, a four-term Democrat from the northern suburb of Highland Park also up for re-election next week, set up her Facebook page to reach younger voters and get the word out about the Clean Cars bill she sponsored.
“It has been of limited usefulness so far, perhaps because I don’t have the staff to help manage it and give specific calls to action,” May said. “I honestly don’t think it has achieved my goal of getting students to contact their legislators.”
Martin said it could take longer for state and local politicians to catch up to congressional members and others who’ve successfully used social networking, especially since young people are less likely to get involved in local politics.
However, she said public officials should keep in mind that 96 percent of the college students she polled have active Facebook or MySpace profiles. Utilizing those websites would be worthwhile.
This is evidence that if you want to reach young people this is where you should go,” Martin said.
By Erica Christoffer