In age of Facebook, Twitter and apps, some candidates adapt better than others

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Shailagh Murray and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 8, 2010; 12:36 AM

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has lots of "friends" - 58,610 of them, to be exact.

That's the number of people who support the former Maryland governor on Facebook, and as he campaigns across the state trying to get his old job back, he mentions his online pals whenever he can. Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Gov. Martin O'Malley, can claim a mere 24,516 Facebook supporters. "That proves I'm friendlier," Ehrlich told the crowd at a corn roast Saturday in Baltimore County, and "more popular."

No doubt, if the election were held on Facebook, Ehrlich would be the runaway winner. But in Maryland, where the election actually will be held, a Washington Post poll has him trailing O'Malley by 11 points.

Ehrlich is one of many politicians this year who have discovered the limits of online friendship.

President Obama's 2008 campaign showed how the Internet could be used to organize grass-roots supporters into a nationwide political force. Now House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates across the country are finding it isn't so easy to duplicate Obama's results.

To show that they "get" the Web, too, politicians are venturing online to raise money, organize volunteers and communicate directly with supporters. They rack up Facebook friends, tweet their every thought and action (or assign some poor young staffer to do it for them), shell out for Obama-style iPhone applications and wait for the Web to work its magic.

A lot of them have been disappointed to find that all that motion doesn't necessarily translate into votes.

"So you have 50,000 Facebook fans - what the heck are you going to do with them?" said Vincent Harris, a GOP new-media consultant for numerous 2010 candidates. "Campaigns this cycle are in this frenzy of numbers, numbers, numbers. But how do you effectively reach these people and activate them?"

When Harris signed on as the new-media adviser to Republican Robert F. McDonnell's campaign for Virginia governor last year, the candidate asked for all the Obama bells and whistles. Harris adopted a sophisticated text-messaging system that allowed the campaign to send quick news flashes to supporters.

McDonnell spent $150,000 to buy the very latest in texting technology. The campaign put its SMS "short code" on T-shirts, online ads and rally placards.

But by Election Day, the campaign had collected only about 9,000 mobile numbers, compared with more than 250,000 plain old e-mail addresses. This year, Harris has discouraged his clients from investing in texting. "I don't think mobile is there yet," Harris said.

Apps for the iPhone are another popular campaign toy. But they can run in the thousands of dollars to create and aside from a certain hipster quality don't tend to reach many voters. And neither text messaging nor apps can be used for political fundraising, making them even less effective as campaign tools.

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