Virtually all candidates involved in competitive races in the 2010 midterm elections in the US used Facebook. Together with my colleague Cristian Vaccari from the University of Bologna, I have collected data on the number of supporters of each Democratic and Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in the 112 most competitive districts (see end for sample).
The numbers are quite interesting, even at a first glance. The figure below shows the distribution of the number of Facebook supporters on November 2 of all the candidates we coded (222 out of 224 had profiles).
The first striking thing is how skewed the distribution of Facebook supporters is in both parties. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Alan Grayson (D-FL) are clear outliers, with 139,203 and 30,807 Facebook supporters on Election Day, respectively. Compare this with the average number of supporters for each party, 4223 for Republicans, and 2149 for Democrats. Bachmann, one out of a hundred and ten Republican candidates on Facebook, had a massive 29% of all the Republican Facebook supporters in the sample. Grayson, one out of a hundred and twelve Democrats, had 13% of all the supporters.
The second striking thing is how relatively few supporters most candidates have, in absolute numbers. The median number of Facebook supporters for a Republican running in 2010 in one of these 112 competitive districts was 2156, 1609 for a Democrat. This should be seen in light of the on average about 700,000 people who live in each congressional district.
Politicians like Bachmann and Grayson can leverage their very considerable online following both in terms of votes, attention, and money (Bachmann won re-election, Grayson did not—both raised significant sums online). But the vast majority of candidates—even looking only at the most competitive districts—had a much more limited reach on social networks this election cycle.
The data we have gathered thus runs counter to the frequently discussed notion that Facebook and the like is widely used for “direct communication” between candidates and voters (see for instance this recent report). In a sense, this is not surprising. Social media are based on people opting in, and most Americans do not care very much about electoral politics (and do not care much for most electoral politicians).
This needs to be taken into consideration both by those of us trying to understand the implications new information and communications technologies have for politics, and by those trying to use them.
Note: We included in the sample all congressional districts rated as lean Republican, tossup, or lean Democrat by the New York Times, the Congressional Quarterly, Cook, or Real Clear Politics in August, 2010. This comes to 112 districts.