Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio was recently frustrated trying to get a cell phone signal on a rural stretch of Interstate 10, so he tweeted it.
“If I wasn’t a limited govt conservative I would support a law MANDATING better cell phone coverage on I-10,” Rubio typed into his iPhone, one of 10 Twitter updates he made on the roundtrip from Tallahassee to Pensacola.
The major Democrat in the race, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, is also a fan of Twitter, which allows anyone to send 140-character messages to followers who sign up to receive them. He keeps two accounts, one for congressional updates and one for campaign updates. Rubio and Meek are also both big into Facebook and YouTube and are exploring other new communication tools as they try to build name recognition and connect with voters in a very large state.
It sets up a test on how effective new communication and social networking can be in overcoming the name recognition and huge financial advantage held by the other major candidate in the race — Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who’s more of an old school campaigner. Crist and Rubio face off in a party primary next August with the general election in November 2010.
“Do I tweet? I haven’t yet. Should I?” Crist recently said with a laugh. “I talk!”
“The new media can be an important tool in a campaign,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor. “But it’s not by itself a giant killer.”
But as Rubio and Meek need to make sure new media is only one part of the mix, Crist should also be paying attention to nontraditional ways of putting out a message.
“It’s a mistake for any candidate not to have an aggressive new media component of their campaign. In politics you want to leave no vote unturned if you possibly can influence it,” Franklin said.
So far, Crist has largely ignored new media, at least in comparison to his opponents. Yes, Crist’s Senate campaign has set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, but Crist, 53, who admits to not being a fan of e-mail, lacks the personal touch Meek, 42, and Rubio, 38, give theirs. And Crist’s YouTube channel isn’t nearly as extensive as his younger opponents’ channels.
But there’s still a year to go before the primary and a little more than 14 months to the general election, so he has time.
“I’m a traditionalist, but I think that we’ll continue to move forward and as new opportunities to communicate develop, we will develop with them,” Crist said. “When you’re governor of a state the size of Florida, I don’t have time to be tweeting all day. I need to govern most of the day.”
One of the first events Meek held after entering the race in January was a Facebook meetup in downtown Orlando. A few dozen people showed up, drawn by the message on the social networking Web site, and Meek capped a speech and Q&A with a request for help.
“Here’s the charge: I need you to go back and share with people. I need you to get on Facebook, I need you to use your e-mail address book and let folks now that we had an opportunity to meet today and that we’re looking forward to working together.”
Meek is the only one of the three major candidates to hit the 5,000 Facebook friend limit. Rubio has 3,830 friends and Crist has 3,059. Meek and Rubio often update their pages themselves with messages and photos, while Crist’s site lacks personal touches (his profile is written in the third person).
Meek is convinced that new media will make a difference in the campaign.
“It’s going to help us reach into homes more. As this campaign moves on and it gets to a faster pace, it’s going to be vital to victory,” Meek said. “That’s the way we look at it. We’re investing in it, it’s going to be a big part of what we do. It’s going to inform voters and it’s also going to set the record straight.”
Crist’s approach to Twitter is similar to his approach to Facebook. A typical Crist tweet: “Today I was honored to receive the endorsement of Congressman Vern Buchanan.” His campaign has only sent 22 tweets.
Meek makes his more personal, whether with updates from the campaign trail or on meetings and votes in the House. A recent one read, “Pitstop. Headed to ABC affiliate in Midway. Pulled over to Quincy. Introduced Kendrick Jr to Lt. John Idanza. Trooper buddy from way back.” Meek, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, has sent 169 campaign tweets and 94 tweets from his House account.
But he admits Rubio is the Twitter king.
“I’m not as intense as some folks in this race as it relates to every little moment of the day,” Meek said with a smile.
Rubio, who has nearly twice as many followers as Crist, has sent 388 tweets. And Rubio is clearly having fun while delivering his messages.
One tweet read, “Consumer confidence near historic low. As Cordozar Calvin Broadus said ‘with my mind on my money and my money on my mind.’” For those not as well versed in rap music as Rubio, Broadus is better known as Snoop Dogg and the quote is from the song “Gin and Juice.”
Rubio has also used Twitter to take jabs at Crist, particular over the governor’s support of the $787 billion federal stimulus package. “Florida unemployment now highest since 1975. The stimulus package my opponent supported is really working well, isn’t it?”
Rubio believes showing a human side on Twitter helps form a better connection with voters.
“You want it to be genuine. If all I write about on Twitter is political process lines, then it’s not real. They know some staffer is writing it,” Rubio said between tweets on I-10. “Part of this whole process is you are supporting the individual and Twitter and Facebook allows you the opportunity to interact with people at that level of your life that you don’t normally interact with.”
Crist is quickly raising millions of dollars for the campaign while Rubio has struggled to hit the million-dollar mark, so Rubio knows Crist will be able to win the television ad war. He’s not naive enough to think he’s going to tweet his way to victory, but he sees new communication tools as a campaign necessity.
“It used to be when you advertised on the nightly news, you got everybody. Now, that’s not true,” Rubio said. “You’ve got to get them on the Internet, you’ve got to get them with e-mail, you’ve got to get them on Twitter, you’ve got to them on Facebook, you’ve got to run TV, you’ve got to do radio, you’ve got to do mail. There’s so many different variations of contacting voters now, and the larger the population, the more segmented it becomes and you’ve got to compete in each one of those segments.”