Political campaigns coming of age with social media

We asked former Renton City Council candidates how they used social media to campaign.

Social media isn’t a kid’s game anymore. It’s every political candidate’s best friend, right next to doorbelling.

Candidates running for any public office, whether it is for the presidential seat or the local Renton City Council races, are utilizing social media platforms to hook voters.

Former council candidates Armondo Pavone, Ruth Perez and Jami Smith would agree.

Smith, who lost Position No. 6 to Perez, said social media is the third most important campaigning tool, following doorbelling and community events.

“I don’t think there’s a substitute to doorbelling, but there are lot of people who have off-schedule work hours and who aren’t home to be reached. Social media is an effective tool to reach them,” said Smith.

Perez said she found her online content was making an impression on the voters by doorbelling.

“Through doorbelling, people would say, ‘I saw your post on Facebook,’” said Perez. “I realized that people who are in social media, my message was getting to them. I wanted them to travel with me through my journey of campaigning.”

Nearly all of the Renton City Council candidates this year utilized Facebook to reach voters and get their message across.

Facebook, being a beast of its own nature, is an effective tool, if you know how to utilize it.

Pavone, who was elected to serve his second term, said he knew his boundaries and limits. While he knew the importance of utilizing social media to promote his campaign, it wasn’t an arena he thrived in. Pavone hired a marketing consultation group to create and promote his online content.

“I knew I was better at raising money than I was at doing what he does for a living,” he said. “(My consultant’s) job was two-folded. It was to get our message out there, he was also in charge to making sure we weren’t being attacked. If there was any kind of momentum on any one issue, we could then get our narrative in front of it and not be defending our position…. You need to have control of your message. And if you don’t have control of your message, you give your opponent the opportunity to have control over your message”

Though he prefers to stay off the digital noise bandwagon, Pavone said he was more deliberate in scrolling through his newsfeed to understand the temperature of the virtual voter base.

“Because of the race, I was forced to look at it. And I also wanted to see what comments were being said about me and to me, so I can answer them.”

Smith and her campaign manager were the ones creating online content ads to target their audience. However, she did feel the toll of constantly being attuned to the virtual sphere.

“I had to have a non-social media day because you’re constantly checking your ad placement, you’re constantly checking your page to see who liked it, you’re constantly checking to see who said what,” she said.

Unlike Smith and Pavone, Perez said she found her groove on social media. While she hired a company to help her increase her audience reach, Perez created, designed and posted all the content on her campaign page.

“I like the communication and advertisement part so much, it didn’t feel like a job,” she said. “You know how teenagers like to take and post selfies, and for them it’s fun? For me, this was fun.”

Who did the candidates target when they used social media? It varied.

Perez said she saw the most online engagement from those aged 40 to 60.

“Facebook is for old people. The reason why I engaged a lot with Facebook is because I was targeting those people. I knew millennials wouldn’t vote as much as the other demographics,” she said.

Smith said she learned she could attract the younger demographic by focusing on specific issues.

“Those people who are 50,60 or 70 are not going to be on social media as much. Doorbelling and mailings are going to be huge for them,” she said. “As people of my generation get older, social media will be higher up on that list. For now, it’s still in-person politics.

“The younger people interacted more with me on the safe injection sites or student loans, those kinds of things. They are more issue specific more than general city council type of campaigning. The general campaign page appealed more to the older demographic, people who are overall understanding how I feel about economic development of public safety. The younger people were very laser focused on the specific issues.”

While platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow you to reach a large audience with ease, it also allows people to attack candidates with ease as well.

Pavone would argue that it’s impertive for any public official to have thick skin, especially during election season. However, when the attacks are online, available for anyone to see, it is often difficult for friends and family members.

“The family members take it a lot harder because they know what you put into it,” he said. “They know your heart’s into it and they see you through a different lens. You’re running against somebody, and their friend who probably has never met you — maybe they’ve heard something about you — they make this comment on social media and make these assumptions. And that’s within their right. But that’s the difference with social media is it wasn’t around 10 years ago. Those people, the supporters of the opponent, you never really heard them because there wasn’t really a way they could talk at or through. It’s definitely different phenomenon.”

Perez said she didn’t receive as much backlash as other candidates, but there were times when it was difficult for her and her family.

“It is a toll for the family. My husband is a strong man. But he didn’t like (any attacks) because he knew the truth. He knew the real version of who I am,” she said.

Smith saw the issue as a human one.

“It’s hard but I don’t think it’s the fault of social media per se, but it’s people. Social media gives them an opportunity to get close to you and reach you,” she said.

It’s hard to tell what the future of social media will look like, however, one thing is for certain — it isn’t only an instrument for campaigning; it’s a necessity.

“It’s not going to go away,” said Pavone. “People will need to figure out ways to deal with it. I think it’s going to get worse as time goes on. People really figure out how to use social media to campaign. That’s the scary thing about social media in small town politics…. In campaigning, it’s all a popularity contest, when it comes down to it.”

Unless it drives voters to the polls — or in our case drives voters to mail in their ballots — social media remains to another tool in the campaigning tool belt.

Perez said it best: “It doesn’t matter how many likes you get. Likes are not votes. If you get retweeted, if you get shared, if you get 100 likes on a post, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win a campaign. Facebook or Twitter is not a poll. That is super important to pay attention to.”

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