You may not have noticed, but President Barack Obama's electronic town hall meeting at Facebook last week was a carefully calculated first step to reassemble the voter coalition that won him the presidency in 2008. Officially, the president held a meeting about issues relating to the economy and national budget, but unofficially the president signaled a call to action for his campaign.
There's a reason that Obama chose Facebook.
The Obama victory in 2008 was a variant of past Democratic successes. His voter base consisted of disproportionate numbers of African Americans, Latinos, Women, union members, political independents, and young people. Democrats rarely win at the presidential level without pulling support from large numbers of these groups.
Part of the Obama strategy, however, was not just to get a majority of young people but a higher turnout level from this group. It worked. Young voters ages 18-29 voted for Obama over Republican John McCain by a sizable margin of 66 percent to 31 percent. More significantly, the turnout of this age group increased by a whopping 19 percent--far exceeding any other group. It wasn't by accident. A study by the Pew Research center in 2008 found that 25 percent of all young voters had been contacted by the Obama campaign, compared with 13 percent who were contacted by the McCain campaign.
All of which takes us back to the Facebook meeting. We have no statistics on the ages of Facebook employees, but a look at the room where Obama spoke would suggest that few, if any, of the attendees were planning for their golden years. This is a young, energetic, talented group slightly (if not more) ahead of the rest of us in understanding the new ways that people connect in life. Obama gets it. He's counting on social media users to spread the word, while dropping a few bucks in his campaign war chest. Many of those 100+ million Americans on Facebook fall into this description as well. They have become a critical component of the Obama coalition.
Going directly to the people has advantages and disadvantages in the dawn of the social media age. The advantage is that candidates can communicate directly with huge numbers of voters, eclipsing the outreach efforts of traditional campaign rallies. The disadvantage is that campaigns become more candidate-centric than ever, leaving behind political party organization. It's that lack of discipline that causes votes to break down in Congress and other legislative arenas.
Still, for the moment (and a long one, at that) Obama is miles ahead of anyone else in cultivating and managing his social media network. No other candidate has that kind of campaign capability as we head into the 2012 campaign.
None of this is to suggest that anyone on Facebook or any other site will vote for Obama in 2012 just because he communicates with them. It does point to a gold mine of potential voters who view Facebook as their window to the world, including political involvement. If Obama wins re-election in 2012, it will be because of his ability to once again connect with large numbers of this group.