Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
“Silver Blaze”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892
Let’s get one thing straight: social media HAVE played a role in the 2014 elections. In fact, the lower-profile the race, the more likely were social channels to matter, since down-ballot candidates can (and do) use Facebook and Twitter in creative and cost-effective ways to reach voters and influencers in elections ignored by most news media. And of course, from West Virginia to Minnesota and across the country, social media shape the communications environment in which campaigns operate.
But when we look at the digital technologies that have the most chance of actually getting people elected to governorships, the House and the Senate this year, the list narrows to two: data-driven field organizing and email-driven online fundraising. Why? Because direct, person-to-person contact with the right voters may help candidates — particularly Democrats but also some Republicans — turn out the people they need on Election Day. Likewise online fundraising, though the connection is less direct: email fundraising pays both for field outreach and for a big percentage of the TV ads now flooding any state or district even resembling a battleground, and TV remains the most-reliable way to persuade swing voters and depress the other side’s supporters.
Of course, social media SUPPORT grassroots and over-the-air outreach, just as digital ads, online video, mobilization emails to supporters, direct mail and appearances by surrogates like Bill Clinton do (hint: that last one probably helps more if the surrogate pronounces your name right). But if this year’s elections suggest anything definitive about digital politics, it’s that data-driven voter targeting and email fundraising are becoming truly mature and powerful technologies, ones that campaigns cannot ignore if they want to maximize their chances of winning.
Facebook and Twitter play a role in political campaigns for sure, particularly when supporters use them to reach out to friends and family on a politician’s behalf, or when campaigns parse social data to identify outreach targets. But that’s a supporting role rather than a central one, and a long way from some of the overblown social hype of the past few years. At least as far as electing candidates goes, social media remain the dog that HASN’T barked in the night…for now.