Hawaii Political Candidates More Social Media Savvy

Candidates can’t stop waving signs and kissing babies but they need to respond to those social media follower requests.

Updated July 1, 2014, 8:18 p.m.  

Above, screenshots of Neil Abercrombie’s and David Ige’s campaign for governor Facebook pages.

In 2014, campaigning without a web presence just isn’t an option. Most candidates vying for office—even in small local races—maintain some presence, even if it’s only a page on Facebook.

That’s changed since 2010, when the gubernatorial primary race between now—Gov. Neil Abercrombie and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann showed us how relatively fresh social media platforms could help shape a candidate’s image. What seemed exciting then is now expected.

No one can tell just how much Abercrombie’s social campaign helped him win the 2010 Democratic primary nearly four years ago, but Ryan Ozawa,* a prominent force in social media as one of Hawaii’s earliest adopters, broke down the difference between Abercrombie and Hannemann’s social networking strategies.

“Abercrombie and his team were willing to be casual and conversational on social media, at least at first. Lots of replies, shout-outs, inclusion of everyday people. He went to ’tweetups’ and held small, cozy potluck dinners with maybe a few dozen grassroots campaigners, in addition to big-ticket ballroom-filling events,” Ozawa described via email (of course).

A screenshot of Mufi Hannemann’s Twitter page. 

By contrast, Hannemann picked Twitter as his social medium of choice. As one of Twitter’s elite “Suggested Users,” Hannemann picked up tens of thousands of followers with no effort—he now has more than a half-million—but Hannemann’s campaign used the Twitter platform more like a broadcasting channel, tweeting out positive, photo-heavy messages, but not really engaging with his followers, Ozawa says. He didn’t find Hannemann’s method all that interesting. “In 2010, Abercrombie felt like a real person on social media, and felt like the people’s candidate,” he said.

How much difference it made is up for debate. Colin Moore, who teaches political science at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, says there hasn’t been enough research yet to determine the impact of social media, but one of its positive attributes is its ability to personalize a candidate in an effective and inexpensive way. If you see campaign supporters popping up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds—especially when they’re friends or people whose opinions you trust —it could raise your interest in a politician you might have otherwise ignored.

And more than that, Ozawa points out that it offers metrics—online marketing tools that give you rich, detailed information about how social media contacts are interacting with you. You can see whether they looked at your post, liked it, shared it, or commented on it.

“Conventional media is a shotgun approach—you may reach half a million people, but are they listening? Do they even care? You might reach a 10th of that audience online, but you know right away how committed they are, and of course, you set up a way to continue to connect with them once they click that ’Like’ button,” Ozawa explains.

That’s actually one of the great ways campaigns can benefit from social media, Moore said. By judging the level of support and interaction from their “followers,” campaigns can recruit potential volunteers who might offer help with offline activities that include sign-waving or working phone banks.

Fast-forward four years from the 2010 race and the social media landscape has changed. L.P. Neenz Faleafine, one of Hawaii’s best-known social media personalities, spearheaded Abercrombie’s successful social media campaign in 2010, but now she’s taken on Sen. David Ige—the governor’s chief Democratic primary challenger—as a client. Another highly visible face in social media, Burt Lum, is running Ige’s social media campaign.

Faleafine, who doesn’t consider herself a political expert, explained via email that she didn’t switch camps because of disappointment in Abercrombie’s first term, which she notes has had some big wins. But she also feels that Abercrombie’s administration has hurt many people in Hawaii, including public school teachers. The state has always been challenged with cost and quality of living issues, and those things are changing more than they’re going away.

“As I have observed, there’s a culture of anxiety that’s manifesting with people,” she wrote. “Thoughtful leadership can calm anxiety through talking story and open and honest communication. So, David Ige is more than just an alternative to Abercrombie. He is a solution to peace of mind, wellness and prosperity for the future of Hawaii.”

Faleafine, who is also representing Honolulu City Councilmember Ikaika Anderson in his race for Congress, describes her technique: “My working definition of social media is that it’s the use of technology to communicate and collaborate with people to build a community rich in culture. With this working definition, I use a process I created called ALIVE: Analytics, Leverage, Ideate, Value, and Engage to develop an integrated content publishing and content marketing strategy.”

That means that in addition to the regular demands of work and family life, clients also need to take time to engage personally on their own social media accounts. “Even small pockets of time to personally engage on social networks make an impact on people,” she says.

Stepping away from her own clients, she credits both U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard with taking the time to offer up a good mix of professional and personal content through their own social media accounts.

Above, screenshots of Tulsi Gabbard’s and Brian Schatz’s Facebook pages. 

Shane Peters, communications director for Abercrombie’s campaign, says the loss of Faleafine isn’t as big a blow in 2014 as it might have been four years ago. “I’ll tell you right off the bat, 2010 to 2014 was a lifetime in terms of the technology,” he said in a telephone interview. “What was cutting edge and esoteric in 2010 is now basically a pencil. Everyone’s got one and everyone knows how to use it.”

Four years ago, using social media in political campaigns was new enough for candidates to be able to keep tighter control over their message. Now that everyone knows how to use the tools, Peters expects to see more creative uses of social media. But he also expects it to grow more organically and the campaign’s social media messaging will be more grassroots than under tight control —not that social media gurus haven’t been brought into the Abercrombie fold.

“I think the medium is now an equalizer,” Peters said, noting that everyone from kids to grandparents can connect digitally in some way.

Ozawa agrees that people of all ages are on social media—although different generations may prefer different platforms. “Facebook is largely a platform for older people, not teens, and I’d bet the overall demographics are reaching the sweet-spot of politics in terms of voters,” he said.

But Ozawa points out that it’s not the only tool out there. And, Moore doesn’t want to overstate the importance of social media because traditional campaigning still has the biggest impact. Moore sees social media as a better way to engage younger constituents—who have the lowest voter turnout—than it is to reach older voters who are more likely to cast a ballot, and perhaps less likely to be on social media.

As for Faleafine, she says there are about 800,000 Facebook accounts that list their current location as Hawaii. “Therefore, it’s vital for candidates’ success to integrate Facebook into their communication and marketing strategies.”

The advantage to social media is it’s a way to interact with constituents who may prefer digital outreach to face-to-face interaction. “Communication is the way others’ prefer to communicate, not the way candidates, organizations or government prefer. Today, with social media and mobile devices there is a long list of ways to communicate with people,” Faleafine says.

Aside from small, local races where candidates may not need much social media, everyone interviewed agreed that a social media presence has become a necessity for candidates, along with all the traditional forms of campaigning—whether it’s going door-to-door to talk with constituents, hosting meet-and-greet campaign events, making personal phone calls or even waving to someone from the side of the road.

Social media can be an effective tool, but its not one likely to make or break a campaign.

“I don’t want to overplay it. It’s not about to replace television or old-fashioned shoe-leather politics,” Moore says. “I don’t think it’s going to swing a campaign one way or another.”

(Disclaimer/explainer: *Ryan Ozawa is independent of all campaigns, but is friends with many of the people working for candidates, including David Ige’s social media director Burt Lum, his friend and co-host of the Hawaii Public Radio show “Bytemarks Cafe.”)

If you’re interested in traditional campaigning, watch “Insights on PBS Hawaii,” at 8 p.m. July 3 to catch the first televised joint appearance between Gov. Neil Abecrombie and state Sen. David Ige. Hosted by Mahealani Richardson, the show won’t offer a formal debate, but rather a moderated discussion driven heavily by questions coming in from viewers, who can email questions before the show or call-in and tweet while it’s airing live. For those who have given up traditional television, the show will also be live-streamed on the PBS Hawaii website. Click here for more details. 

And earlier edition of this story incorrectly indicated where Burt Lum was working on social media.