The popularity of social networking websites has exploded since Maine's last gubernatorial race in 2006, but the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter has risen exponentially, even since the 2008 campaign cycle.
Candidates on both sides of the aisle sought to capitalize on the free, direct access to potential voters. Their efforts were met with varying success. The gubernatorial primary winners, Democrat Elizabeth "Libby" Mitchell and Republican Paul LePage, maintained an online presence but were not the most engaged online.
The most active social networking candidates were Republican Matt Jacobson and Democrat Rosa Scarcelli, who also happened to be the youngest and the two political newcomers. Scarcelli beat many expectations by coming in third in the four-way primary and only one percentage point shy of second place. Jacobson, however, finished dead last in his seven-way race.
“We're at a real interesting point in how we conduct our political campaigns and political discourse," said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono. "We haven't fully abandoned the more traditional ways of doing things yet, and we haven't gotten to the point yet where you absolutely have to rely on technology to win.”
It takes a little bit of everything to be successful, Brewer said.
“Part of why Scarcelli did better than some people expected was her use of technology and of the social networking media,” he said. “On the other hand, Paul LePage ran the classic, in some ways pre-electronic media, campaign. He was very grassroots, boots-on-the-ground campaign, and in a state like Maine you can still win like that. You can rely on this dense network of local groups, and I think LePage did that.”
Dennis Bailey, a political consultant for the Scarcelli campaign, said there was no doubt her social networking campaign was effective.
“We definitely knew early on that social media was going to play a really important role because we had to build a base from nothing,” he said. “We wouldn't have gotten into almost second place without it, because we didn't have the ground game and any of the other traditional stuff that the other candidates relied on.”
The campaign used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get its message out, Bailey said.
“We had this thing we developed that we called Facebook ambassadors. We asked people who were already on Facebook to send messages to all their Facebook friends repeatedly throughout the campaign. So the reach was like 30,000 people, even though we had 1,500 fans,” he said.
He also said it wasn't enough just to make noise online.
“You can't do it sort of willy-nilly and tweet just once in awhile. It doesn't quite work that way,” Bailey said. “You've got to have something to say. A lot of other candidates used it just sort of to announce things, like, 'I'm here,' or, 'I'm there doing this today.' This was not just announcing things for Rosa, but conversing with people back and forth, answering questions.”
Bailey added that while most of the work was done by Scarcelli herself, it was a “team effort.”
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said that though both Jacobson and Scarcelli were active online, there was a difference between them.
“Social media are useful once you already have some money and get yourself somewhat visible," Melcher said. "People aren't going to join a Facebook group of somebody they've not heard of. Matt Jacobson just didn't have the money to get the kind of visibility that Rosa Scarcelli had.”