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Forget political polls — look at Facebook engagement

22 Jan

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The Facebook model shows Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is ahead in her campaign for re-election even though a recent political poll shows she’s narrowly behind her potential challengers.

by  –

Is Facebook engagement just as good of a predictor of election outcomes as traditional political polls?

Maybe, according to an article in Politico Magazine by two Ph.D. candidates and a research assistant at the University of Massachusetts. In 2012, eight of the Senate’s nine toss-up races were won by the candidates who had more engaged Facebook followers, the researchers note.

Facebook engagement not only includes the number of people who like a candidate’s page, it also includes the growth or contraction in the number of people who comment, like or share posts about the candidate with their friends.

The researchers then combine Facebook engagement with traditional ways of measuring a candidate’s strength — organization and money — to come up with their vote projections.

If their model is a reliable guide, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., may be in better shape that political polls indicate. Their Facebook forecast shows Hagan leading Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s speaker of the House, by a 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent margin in Hagan’s 2014 re-election bid. By contrast, a poll published Jan. 14 by Public Policy Polling shows Tillis with a 1-point lead over Hagan. Four other potential Republican challengers also are slightly ahead of Hagan in PPP’s polls.

The Facebook forecast also shows Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a nearly 8-point lead over his Democratic challenger in Kentucky, and Democratic Rep. Gary Peterswith an 11-point lead for the open Senate seat in Michigan. The Alaska seat held by Sen.Mark Begich is a dead heat.

Besides being Ph.D. candidates, two of the article’s authors — Matthew McWilliams andEdward Erikson are partners in MSE, a political communications firm with offices in South Hadley, Mass., and College Park, Md. They’ve got real-world experience helping Democratic candidates, labor unions, liberal interest groups and “socially responsible businesses.”

So dismiss their Facebook model on ideological grounds if you want. That could be a mistake, however. The researchers contend their Facebook model works because of scale.

“Social media, and especially Facebook, is now ubiquitous,” they write. “It’s ‘virtual’ in the sense that it’s online, but the interactions between candidates and voters are no less real.”

America’s 128 million daily active Facebook users are on the site 114 billion minutes every month. In 2012, 12 percent of campaign spending went to social media — a 616 percent increase compared to 2008. Plus Facebook metrics are public, meaning they’re “a real-time measuring stick that allows campaigns, pundits and analysts to gauge how well campaigns organize and connect with supporters,” the authors write.

“Online engagement translates to real succession the field and at the polls,” they conclude.

Maybe. After all, the Facebook model did correctly predict eight of nine toss-up races in the Senate in the 2012 election. But it correctly predicted only 20 of the 33 most competitive House races.

That’s nothing to brag about — that record wouldn’t win many office sports pools.

But the key takeaway from their research is that it’s foolish for candidates — or businesses, for that matter — to ignore social media. That should be obvious by now.

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