Republicans now as nimble as Democrats on social media, study finds

Democrats had the edge in use of social media in the 2008 election campaign, but Republicans caught up in 2010, a new report finds. Political 'friending,' tweeting now common in both parties.

By , Staff writer

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    This image taken from Facebook.com on Jan. 27, shows the Facebook page of President Barack Obama. Democrats and the Obama campaign may have pioneered the use of social media in an election, but Republican voters and tea party activists caught up with them in 2010, according to a new Pew report.
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Democrats and the Obama campaign may have pioneered the use of social media in an election, but Republican voters and tea party activists caught up with them in 2010, according to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In 2008, only 29 percent of Republican/McCain voters were active on social networking sites, compared with 44 percent of Democrats/Obama voters. By 2010, Republicans were just as likely as Democrats to be active on online social networking sites and to use these sites for political purposes.

This is partly because people 50 and older, who are more likely to align themselves with more conservative candidates, are the fastest-growing demographic group using social media – their numbers nearly doubled between April 2009 and May 2010, says Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the report.

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“Two years ago, it was young Obama supporters using Facebook to engage with the campaign. Now, their parents are using Facebook to engage with the tea party,” he said in a telephone interview.

Republicans, moreover, during the past two years have used social media much more aggressively to tell their story, adds Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Everybody learned from the Obama campaign in 2008 that social media can be an effective tool to contact and galvanize voters,” he says.

"This advantage that Democrats used to have doesn’t seem to have applied to the 2010 election," says Mr. Rainie, "and I’m sure the Obama administration, like every other political actor, is much more conscious than he or she used to be about how important these new technologies are for communicating with voters."

Judging by the buzz on the Web on Tuesday night during President Obama's State of the Union address, the message seems to have hit home.

According to Tweetbeat, 100,000 tweets about the address were sent while Mr. Obama was speaking. They far outnumbered tweets about other events of the day, including the upcoming Super Bowl.

Among those tweeting was Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa: "@SteveKingIA Response to Obama's state of the union is very flat. Not inspiring and supressed by mixed seating."

And from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's account: "@Rep_Giffords From the entire Giffords team: Happy 21st Birthday Daniel Hernandez! Sounds like you have fun plans tonight". Mr. Hernandez, a Giffords intern, attended the address.

The White House, too, raised its social media game on Tuesday by streaming an "enhanced” video of the address – complete with charts and graphs – on the White House website. Immediately afterward, a panel of White House officials answered questions submitted via Facebook and Twitter about issues Obama had addressed in the speech. And on Thursday afternoon, Obama himself will answer questions submitted via Facebook and Twitter during a live YouTube interview from the White House.

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