What Americans Can Learn from the Canadian Election — A Social Media Analysis

“2012 is coming! 2012 is coming!” No, this isn’t an apocalyptic chant; it’s a fact: the 2012 Presidential Election is fast approaching. But, before Republicans and Democrats start looking forward, they should look North. Canada just had a Federal election dubbed “the social media election”, and there’s plenty they can learn about social media and politics.

Canada held a Federal election on May2, 2011, ultimately electing Stephen Harper, and the Conservative Party for a majority government. The official opposition is the New Democratic Party, headed by Jack Layton; this is significant, as the last few decades have seen the NDP a distant third to the dominant Liberal and Conservative Parties. So, if the 2011 Canadian Federal election really was “Canada’s first social media election”, what role did social media play in each party’s bid?

The short answer is: it’s hard to say. Experts are noting how difficult it is to establish a definitive link between online behavior and offline behavior. This problem is compounded by the fact that while social media is an inherently social activity, voting is a private activity. Ultimately, people standing in a ballot box alone and anonymous.

The longer answer is: there may not be a traceable link between someone’s twitter account and their ballot, but social media influence can be tracked in other important ways. Democrats and Republicans take note.

Social Media – A Real Time focus Group

Social media proved very useful for tracking campaign donations. Traffic to online donation pages is easy to keep track of. The same goes for voters who sign up for newsletters and volunteer positions.

Perhaps, even more important to parties is that social media can be useful as a focus group. In the Canadian election, if people wanted to know what a particular riding (or even the public in general) felt about a candidate or topic, one of the best places to look was social media. Twitter, in particular, proved to be useful, encouraging real time, public, discussion. So, while Americans might not be able to count on Twitter users to vote the way they tweet, watching Twitter enables parties to keep a finger on the heart beat of discussion in a particular area.

Viral Videos Don’t Equal Votes

Viral campaigns circulated, a new video released weekly, even daily. The videos were, in many cases, smart with high production value, and many of them targeted Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  But, at the end of the day, Stephen Harper got re-elected, and, in fact, gained a majority where he previously had a minority government. This suggests that while the spread of viral smear videos may be entertaining, they don’t necessarily have much influence on the way people actually vote.

Social Media Targets a Particular Demographic.

While there is little doubt that social media is becoming ubiquitous, unlike sports, fashion, or entertainment, the major voting demographic isn’t under 30; in many cases, it isn’t even under 50.  The Canadian election proved that reaching a-typical demographics online may require different strategies and campaigns. If the 2012 American election plans to use social media, it needs to consider the differences between groups online.

Social Media and Voter Turnout: Not a Match Made in Heaven

Everyone was talking about it online; surely, this will mean a higher voter turnout? Unfortunately, no.  The election had a reported 61.4 percent voter turnout; this is an improvement over the 2008 election, but it is still the third worst in Canadian history. Again, this proves that it is difficult to measure people’s online behavior in relation to their offline behavior. It is even harder to get them offline and to a ballot box.

Like the Canadian election, the 2012 Presidential Election will surely incorporate new media like never before. But, before Republicans and Democrats start tweeting and creating Facebook groups, they should look to Canada as a reminder of what social media can and cannot do for a campaign trail.

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