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In fight for student vote, social media gives GOP a hopeful sign

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Posted at 1:22 PM, Oct 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-20 22:44:33-04

Which political party’s college outreach group is reaching more students on social media?

If you answered the Republicans, you are – surprisingly – right.

On Facebook, the College Democrats of America have just 17,400 “likes,” compared to the College Republican National Committee’s 124,700. That’s seven times more.

And on Twitter, the Democrats’ count of 33,600 followers is behind the Republicans’ 56,700.

Even more shocking: While the College Republicans are consistently churning out videos with several thousand views on YouTube, all but one video on the College Democrats’ YouTube account is set to “private.”

Of course, the youth vote has sided with Democrats for years. The last time the majority of 18- to 29-year-old voters favored a Republican in a presidential election was 26 years ago when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis. And a poll of more than 1,000 likely millennial voters released last week by Fusion shows Democrats up 15 points over Republicans in the midterm election.

Because of this, one Democratic National Committee staff member said the whole numbers comparison is, “whatever.”

“It’s not necessarily about eyeballs. It’s about the numbers that volunteer or engage,” Rob Flaherty, the DNC’s youth media coordinator, said.

So what accounts for the difference between social media and the voting booth? Neither side said they knew for sure, but it might be that CRNC has a professional staff to do its digital outreach, while the CDA is a group of student volunteers. The CDA also does not pay to advertise on Facebook, Flaherty said, while CRNC digital director Stefanie Petropoulos said her group pays to promote some posts — just not to advertise the Facebook page itself.

Both groups said their approach on social media works better.

CDA President Natasha McKenzie, a student at Trinity Washington University, highlighted her organization’s “grassroots” nature that empowers the 500 chapters listed on its website to become involved in elections. And CRNC officials pointed to their professional quality videos that have the proven ability to go viral (even if they sometimes earn less-than-favorable press).

But for young voters, just seeing political content on social media might not be enough to get them involved in elections.

Matthew Kushin, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Shepherd University in West Virginia, studied how social media affected political involvement among young voters during the 2008 presidential election.

Those who were posting about politics online were more likely to feel engaged with the political process, Kushin’s study found. But, contrary to the popular narrative of social media’s influence in 2008, just seeing political news and postings online wasn’t enough to pique college students’ interest.

“It seemed to us that just paying attention to social media did not bring people into the political arena in 2008,” Kushin said.

Much has changed since 2008, including the number of people on social media and the level of sophistication of political activists using it. But the best strategies, Kushin said, still involve getting people active online.

“You’re seeing a lot of campaigns with hashtags and encouraging people to provide information, or take a picture of them, or explain their reasoning for a particular decision,” he said.

The CDA takes this idea of getting people active online one step further. More than encouraging discussion online, McKenzie said her highest priority is to use the CDA social media accounts to get followers active offline.

As an arm of the Democratic National Committee, two of CDA’s biggest social media efforts in this election cycle involve getting college students to pledge to vote. The CDA is using two DNC-sponsored websites to do this: Iwillvote.com and commit2vote.com.

It also promotes on social media its chapters that are doing on-the-ground work for Democratic campaigns, and there has been some success moving students to help in states with tight races.

Though the DNC declined to provide internal numbers about how CDA is converting its social media work into actual volunteer hours, Flaherty pointed to efforts in Kentucky and North Carolina where CDA chapters traveled from other states to campaign in key Senate races.

“Our first and foremost mission is to elect Democrats,” McKenzie said. “What people in chapters and states can do, like boots on the ground and phone banking, are super effective.”

The CDA aims to knock on at least 100,000 doors and make 50,000 phone calls this year to support Democratic candidates.

College Republicans, on the other hand, are not only seeking to mobilize their online base but also are producing high-quality content on their own to persuade college students to vote Republican.

The College Republican National Committee launched a series of advertisements widely criticized for likening a woman’s choice of whom to vote for and her choice in a wedding dress. But the videos gained well over 600,000 views on Youtube – exactly what CRNC’s digital director said she was hoping for. The CRNC released a dozen videos in 2014 spoofing television shows likely to resonate with youth voters, using an outside firm to shoot and edit the advertisements.

Critics lambasted the highest profile among them, “Say Yes to the Candidate,” as sexist because it likened a woman’s choice for whom to vote for to which style of wedding dress to buy. McKenzie actually “thanked” the CRNC with a handwritten note she posted on Facebook for spending $1 million on an ad she believes backfired.

But Petropoulos, CRNC’s digital director, said the reaction was exactly what her team was hoping for.

The six versions of the Say Yes to the Candidate video, each promoting a different Republican politician, have a combined 660,000 views on YouTube.

“No matter how you look at this, the success is transparent when you look at the content we're putting out and the attention it’s getting,” Matt Donnellan, CRNC’s national executive director, said.

The GOP acknowledged its problem with youth voters in a 2013 report that became known as the party’s “autopsy.” Donnellan said College Republicans have also realized they can’t take younger voters for granted, “like the Democrats do.”

The CRNC and its social media presence, Donnellan said, are an important part of that strategy.

“Having dedicated staff who bring their talents to this full time, along with everyone else contributing,” he said, “it’s something I’ve never seen before on any other campaign or anything else I’ve done.”

Reach reporter Sean McMinn at sean.mcminn@scripps.com or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.