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The Popularity Platform

Sure, there are issues. But with gubernatorial candidates embracing social media like never before, Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell want to be your friends too.

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Followers of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds' Twitter account knew precisely when his mouth was watering — 9:26 a.m. on July 11 — and not with a longing for the sweet taste of a November election victory.

Deeds' tweet revealed other ambitions: obtaining juicy, ripe tomatoes at the 11th Annual Tomato Festival in Shockoe Bottom.

“Having a big day,” Deeds wrote in his Twitter feed. “Spoke to American Legion earlier. Now sitting in traffic trying to get to Tomato Festival. Mouth is watering.”

He's a serious contender, but deep down, Deeds loves fresh Virginia tomatoes. He's just like us!

Casual disclosures like these — sent from his BlackBerry — have formed the heart and soul of Deeds' run for governor. “One of the focuses is getting out Creigh's personality,” campaign spokesman Jared Leopold says of the candidate's Twitter philosophy. “Creigh is who he's always been, whether it's on Twitter or in person.”

It's a unique strategy in the race to win the hearts and votes of Internet-savvy Virginians. In the post-Obama campaign era, it's mandatory for candidates to embrace social-media networking — ways of connecting with their supporters, and connecting their supporters with each other, through Facebook, Twitter, online discussion boards and the like.

Both gubernatorial candidates, including Deeds' Republican opponent, Bob McDonnell, are cyberstumping hard, making this the first high-profile Virginia election in which real-time cyber interactions are as common as yard signs. The string of link buttons to social-networking sites at the top of both campaigns' Web pages offers proof.

But the campaign operations are reaching different conclusions about how to deploy these fast-evolving virtual power tools.

“There are two different ways you can use [social-media networking],” says Isaac Wood, a research analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “You can use it as a new way to get out the same information, or you can embrace it as a completely new animal.”

McDonnell fits the first description. He uses sites such as Twitter and Facebook as fast-paced, high-volume avenues through which to spread campaign information — sending out platform announcements, campaign-stop details, sharing links to editorials, sharing photos through Flickr.

Deeds takes a different approach, using folksy, stream-of-consciousness blasts to tame a new beast — like with his Shockoe Tomato Festival tweet. His Twitter account is an inside-the-mind diary of ultrapersonal updates, typed casually by Deeds himself. He jokes about the “parking lot they call 95,” exclaims that he's “living the dream!” while listening to Rolling Stones in the car and complains one weekend that “rain has put off necessary yard work.”

This front-porch dialogue fits Deeds' rural Bath County roots. They may look like tires spinning in the mud, but Deeds' tweets are filled with character, not just plain content, Leopold says.

“It's a nice window into the campaign for people following on Twitter or Facebook,” Leopold says. “It's the candidate himself giving a real sense of what's going on, and I think that's a contrast between the two campaigns.”

The contrast is stark, and it's a value judgment of whether one method is better.

McDonnell's Twitter account may be less personal and doctored by paid staffers, but his tweets seem to get the job done. Each is concise, informative and geared toward the final goal: winning votes. 

“He made it clear early on,” recalls Tucker Martin, McDonnell's spokesman. “He wanted this to be the most technologically adept campaign in Virginia history.”

To fulfill that vision, Martin drafted an all-star lineup. “We've hired three of the best professionals when it comes to online politics,” he says — the tech-savvy architects behind the 2008 presidential bids of Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee.

Success, Martin says, boils down to one basic revelation: “We recognize the fact that there's no difference between online and off-line in modern life. [Online networking] is just as important to the campaign as every other segment.”

McDonnell's story defies a deep-seated stereotype that Republicans are behind-the-times and clumsy with technology — or at least that their candidates are. The notion fomented during President Barack Obama's race against his tech-challenged challenger, septuagenarian Sen. John McCain.

By all accounts, Obama scored his landmark victory in part because of a mastery of several virtual power tools: blogs, social networking sites and a revolutionary online database that mobilized unprecedented numbers of donors and supporters. It was gear that McCain neither owned nor understood.

Just last week the McDonnell campaign took things a step further, unveiling McDonnell Action (action.bobmcdonnell.com). The site is a networking beast, assembling the candidate's tech tools into one highly efficient machine and allowing users to create their own groups, to create blog postings and interact.

While Deeds is using many of the same tools, including mobile text-messaging updates, his campaign has yet to use social media in a concretely efficient way.

And it's costing him, says Jon Newman, co-founder of Hodges Partnership, a Richmond public-relations firm. “I understand you're having a good time,” he says of Deeds' casual tweets, “but at the end of the day, does that sell your jobs policy? No. How are you using social media to tell them your position on how you're going to fix roads?”

Perhaps, some observers suggest, Deeds is stupid like a fox, intentionally ignoring policy to establish a strong bond with the public. Voters may begin to turn away from platforms in search of a good old boy to lead Virginia, and Deeds' down-home Twitter feed may win them over.

In the numbers game, McDonnell is leading. Last week he was up to nearly 4,400 Twitter followers and almost 15,700 Facebook fans, compared with Deeds' 2,328 followers on Twitter and fewer than 10,000 fans on Facebook.

That may not tell the whole story, however. The social networking scoreboard is misleading, according to U.Va.'s Wood.

“TV ads are seen by thousands or millions of voters,” he says, “and Twitter, for example — there's going to be only a few thousand.” So an extra 2,000 Twitter followers is negligible in a statewide election of 7.7 million voters. “As far as the numbers go,” he says, “there's not going to be as big an effect.”

It will be interesting to see “if they go negative on social media just like they do on advertising,” Newman says, laughing. “I don't think they've even thought of that yet.”

Though “it's not a great predictor of actual votes,” Wood says social networking isn't a waste of time. Only a small number of Virginians may tweet, he says, but “members of the media are going to be paying close attention to what the candidates are saying on their Facebook page and Twitter account.”

And while the campaigns work on their strategies, social-media forces are at also at work from the outside in.

When the candidates face off for their first and only confirmed debate, set for 11 a.m., July 25 at the Homestead in Hot Springs, the event will be live-streamed on VirginiaTalks.com (a project of Style Weekly). Viewers who participate in an online chat may have a question selected by the moderator to be asked of the candidates.

There's also been a proposed debate incorporating YouTube with Politico.com and WJLA-TV in Arlington. And last week, McDonnell accepted a debate invitation from Blogs United, an association of statewide bloggers , proposing to lead a gubernatorial debate at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. If Deeds accepts, it will truly be a social-media collision with politicking in 2009. S

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