NEW YORK (AP) — Republican Tim Pawlenty disclosed his 2012 presidential aspirations on Facebook. Rival Mitt Romney did it with a tweet. President Barack Obama kicked off his re-election bid with a digital video emailed to the 13 million online backers who helped power his historic campaign in 2008.

Welcome to The Social Network, presidential campaign edition.

The candidates and contenders have embraced the Internet to far greater degrees than previous White House campaigns, communicating directly with voters on platforms where they work and play. If Obama’s online army helped define the last campaign and Howard Dean’s Internet fundraising revolutionized the Democratic primary in 2004, next year’s race will be the first to reflect the broad cultural migration to the digital world.

“You have to take your message to the places where people are consuming content and spending their time,” said Romney’s online director, Zac Moffatt. “We have to recognize that people have choices and you have to reach them where they are, and on their terms.”

The most influential of those destinations include the video sharing website YouTube; Facebook, the giant social network with 500 million active users; and Twitter, the cacophonous conversational site where news is made and shared in tweets of 140 characters or less.

All the campaigns have a robust Facebook presence, using the site to post videos and messages and to host online discussions. In the latest indication of the site’s reach and influence, Obama plans to visit Facebook headquarters in California this coming Wednesday for a live chat with company founder Mark Zuckerberg and to take questions from users who submit questions on the site.

Candidates have embraced Twitter with an intensity that rivals pop star Justin Bieber’s. Twitter was the Republican hopefuls’ platform of choice last Wednesday, moments after Obama gave a budget speech calling for some tax increases and decrying GOP proposals to cut Medicare.

“President Obama doesn’t get it. The fear of higher taxes tomorrow hurts job creation today,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour tweeted.

“The president’s plan will kill jobs and increase the deficit,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned in a tweet, attaching a link to a more detailed statement posted on Facebook.

In the past, candidates would have pointed supporters to their websites for such a response. Now, as Moffatt puts it, “the campaign site may be headquarters, but it needs digital embassies across the web.”

Republicans once seemed slow to harness the power of the web. The party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, told reporters he didn’t even use email. The 2012 hopefuls have worked hard to prove their Internet savvy, particularly with social media.

Pawlenty “understands the power of new technology and he wants it to be at the forefront. We are going to compete aggressively with President Obama in this space,” spokesman Alex Conant said. Conant pointed to efforts to live stream videos to Facebook and award points and badges to supporters in a way that mirrors Foursquare, the emerging location-based mobile site.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate and a potential presidential candidate this time, has made Facebook a centerpiece of her communication efforts to supporters.

Palin has been criticized for treating it as a one-way form of communication that allows her to bypass direct questions from reporters and voters. Other Republicans insist they’re willing to wade into the messy digital fray and cede some control of their message.

“We trust our supporters and want to err on the side of giving them more control, not less,” Conant said.

Just as social networking liberates candidates to take their message directly to voters, it offers plenty of pitfalls as well.

It’s prone to mischief, with dozens of fake Twitter accounts and Facebook pages popping up daily that are intended to embarrass the candidates. Also, a candidate’s gaffe or an inconsistency on issues can be counted on to go viral immediately.

Gingrich has gotten ensnared in some online traps. His apparent back-and-forth on whether the U.S. should intervene in the conflict in Libya was discussed widely and amplified online. He first advocated military engagement, then came out against it after Obama ordered airstrikes.

Twitter lit up with the news that a photo on Gingrich’s exploratory website showing people waving flags was a stock photo once used by the late liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

Spokesman Rick Tyler rejected such criticism and said Gingrich has pioneered the use of digital technology.

“Over 1.4 million people follow him on Twitter. He has a very active Facebook. There are eight websites connected to organizations started by Newt (that) use social media platforms to communicate to their coalitions,” Tyler said.

But Josh Dorner, who tracks GOP candidates online for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the Republican presidential hopefuls appear to be unprepared for the unforgiving pace of the digital age.

Obama, who in 2008 had to recover from plenty of web-amplified flubs such as his comment that bitter small town voters “cling” to guns and religion, will probably be more nimble, Dorner said.

“We are moving in a warp speed environment, and none of the Republican candidates understand the media environment in which they’re operating. It puts them at a huge disadvantage to the president,” Dorner said.

Strategists also say the greatest digital innovation in 2012 may not even have surfaced yet, even as campaigns figure out how to do effective microtargeting ads for Facebook and work to develop “apps” for smart phones rather than laptops and traditional TV.

“As with anything, there’s going to be a shiny new cell phone every six months,” said Matt Ortega, a former online organizer for the Democratic National Committee. “You’re going to see both new tools and more sophistication in existing tools.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (14)
  1. Swamp Fox says:

    Beware the social ‘friending’ political spam emails!!! Facebook and all will never be the same.

    If all these Presidential contenders are vying for my support then don’t do it by social networking or incessant stupid emails! Do it by showing positive dynamic actions and presenting viable substantive solutions to this country’s troubles and woes!

    So far it seems like both major parties have forgotten what their separate political precepts and/or ideology stand for. Also, all major parties seemed to have forgotten what “compromise” as well as “advise and consent” means in governance and/or constituent public service. Government is a train wreck waiting to happen. Again, actions speak louder than words or emails. No amount of social networking is going to change that.

    1. Michael Franklin says:

      I have a new idea…how bout any one politician In Washington DC do something, ANYTHING without it having to do with getting re-elected. The election is 18-months away. Why are we focusing on it now? I know because that’s where the money is, in keeping that corrupt job in Washington DC. The politicians spend hundreds of millions of dollars to secure a low to medium six-figure income. Why would someone do that…control…money…laziness…and who knows how many other things. It’s unreal to me and the media helps to feed the frenzy on FOX News and MSNBC it’s like a political race in and of itself. Can we as tax payers vote to withhold paying these guys until they start doing something productive, like creating jobs, reducing the deficit, stop taking things from SIG to make their lives better. I had faith in President Obama…”Time for Change” slogan. Well Mr President although I know much of the mess we have ourselves in now came as a result of President (Mr.Cowboy) George Bush. I know one promise that the Democrats made was that all the troops were coming home if we put them in office. That worked out pretty good LOL. Good luck to all the Presidential candidates of the 2012 election…can any one of you please try honesty in this election. Even if it costs you the presidency JUST BE HONEST!!!! Please!!

  2. Ray says:

    Anyone even Obama before Pawlenty

    1. Lenny says:

      Lets be honest Ray, you voted for the worst president in history. You are a flaming liberal and you are feeling remorse over your vote for Obama.

  3. Some of these candidates are not our friends.

  4. Aly says:

    Little behind the times, aren’t they? Ron Paul did it with style last election cycle… seems like they’re just jumping on the bandwagon.

  5. Fun Guy says:

    The Media is so out of touch. Everybody knows that Ron Paul is the darling of the Internet He raised more money on the Internet in one day that any other candidate. How that didn’t get included in this article is beyond me.

  6. Rusty Shackelford says:

    Liberals are always after the young vote, as the public schools have an allegience with the left, so this is thier perfect opportunity.

    1. Swamp Fox says:

      Your full of beans!! Most of the school kids or schools you malign are ignorant of the political process and US Constitution. In a recent independent survey released on Yahoo recently most high school students in big city schools have problems the meanings of left from right in the political spectrum.

      From all the diatribes on this and recent threads, I even wonder if the commenters know the differences either!

  7. Rusty Shackelford says:

    Ron Paul a media darling? Rarely heard of him.

    1. Fun Guy says:

      Get out of the 2 party paradigm. I can’t believe you guys are still falling for “the other guys are the devil routine”

      Do yourself a favor and google Ron Paul and do a little research on your own. A whole new world will open to you.

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