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For politicians, does online popularity translate into votes?


Recent polling suggests Democrats are in a better position to retain control of the Senate this fall than previously expected. If they do, races in swing states like Pennsylvania could be key. That's where Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is running against celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz. Fetterman's team is making use of the Democrats' popularity on Twitter to attack Oz on a variety of issues. The platform is also where Oz has clapped back at Fetterman, and it's where the Republican has made a number of gaffes of his own.

This sort of social media one-upsmanship (ph) is playing out in lots of other races as well, but likes and retweets don't equal votes. To understand if and how a candidate's social media activity can lead to tangible wins on Election Day, I'm joined by Jenny Stromer-Galley. She studies political social media messaging and is senior associate dean in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. She's also the author of "Presidential Campaigning In The Internet Age." Jenny Stromer-Galley, welcome.


GONYEA: Pennsylvania is an open Senate race - a seat currently held by the GOP - but it's now widely rated as leaning toward Democrats. And in talking about the race, many pundits point to those online spats between Fetterman and Oz. So how should we think about a candidate's online popularity? Is it now a key part of the path to winning when not everyone who is paying attention to someone online can actually vote for them?

STROMER-GALLEY: Yeah. It's a really great question, and it's important to remember that social media helps amplify a candidate's message. And so while they are talking primarily to their supporters, that network helps amplify the message and brings new supporters, passes that clever meme or tweet to friends and family members to say, hey, check this guy out. And, you know, Fetterman and Oz - this race is really noteworthy for the cleverness and the energy, I think, that the candidates are bringing to their social media campaigns that you don't typically see from the traditional campaign social media accounts.

GONYEA: Is it good for a candidate in Pennsylvania that a voter in Michigan or Colorado is really focused in on their social media?

STROMER-GALLEY: It matters in part because the large number of followers tends to get journalists like you paying attention to their campaigns.

GONYEA: I mentioned Fetterman's success - capitalizing on his social media following. Again, that's in Pennsylvania. What other candidates are you watching online this year?

STROMER-GALLEY: Beto in Texas has...

GONYEA: Beto O'Rourke running for governor.

STROMER-GALLEY: Yes. Thank you. Beto's interesting because he's been running and running and running, and he's had a lot of success on social media. It hasn't necessarily translated into the wins that he has hoped for. But he and his campaign staff have a really well-oiled machine when it comes to effective uses of social media, in particular using video to capture him on the stump with supporters. He's gregarious when he speaks, and he's a little atypical. And that really works for his campaign, and they capitalize on that.

GONYEA: But again, he is also perhaps an example of the limitations of online popularity because despite all the retweets, et cetera, et cetera, he is still trailing in the polls.

STROMER-GALLEY: Absolutely. Because at the end of the day, the reality for candidates is they do need to mobilize their base of supporters. So, you know, one of the other things important to remember with social media is that it helps the candidates to do some additional things beyond voting or getting people to vote, including raising money through their social media.

GONYEA: We're talking about the potential upside of a big viral event. A big viral event can also amplify a gaffe or a problem or just a tweet that came across in a way that you didn't expect. So is the opposite true? Can a viral moment, the wrong kind...


GONYEA: ...Really hurt?

STROMER-GALLEY: Absolutely, it can hurt. And this is the risk, I think, for campaigns is they are experimenting. But then they can make mistakes, and they do make mistakes. And when they do and it goes viral, then they have to deal with the consequences on social media.

GONYEA: Jenny Stromer-Galley studies political social media messaging and is the author of "Presidential Campaigning In The Internet Age." Jenny, thank you for joining us.

STROMER-GALLEY: Oh, it was my pleasure, Don. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.