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The virtual campaign

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GREENFIELD — Though yard signs are just beginning to dot yards and roadsides in Hancock County, the names and faces of local candidates have been scrolling across smartphone displays and computer screens for months now in a trend that’s changing the way candidates reach voters.

Facebook is being tapped by local candidates as a way to spread their message and gain support for the May 6 primary election. While most aren’t ditching traditional forms of campaigning, they say the obvious trend toward spreading information online is something that can’t be ignored in the race for the popular vote.

“Facebook ‘likes’ do not vote, but the people who ‘like’ do,” said incumbent Prosecutor Michael Griffin, pointing to the 1,676 followers of his campaign page. “I hope that is some indication of approval on the job we’ve been doing.”

And if Facebook “likes” could vote, Griffin would be well ahead of his challenger. Brent Eaton has only a quarter of the Facebook followers. But both acknowledge that while the social media site is a tool to reach out to potential voters, it’s not the only means of earning the Republican nomination.

“It’s like anything: I don’t think it’s wise to rely on any one medium exclusively,” said Eaton. “You want to try to have some overlaps to reach people in different ways.”

That’s the key in a successful campaign, said Brandon Waite, a local expert on the effect of social media on election campaigns. Waite, an assistant professor of political science at Ball State University, has been studying the issue seven years, dating to just before Barack Obama successfully rode the wave of social media in the 2008 presidential election.

“In 2008, Obama got all the hype for capturing the youth vote and reaching out through social media to them,” Waite said. “In the last six years, demographics – particularly Facebook and Twitter – have completely changed. The demographics have gotten older, they’ve gotten more politically diverse.”

While Facebook was only open to college students years ago, more older, politically conservative users have hopped onto the site. And though it was a must-have for national campaigns six years ago, now it’s also a necessity for city and county candidates as well.

“As a lot of conservatives are distrustful of mainstream media; they’re increasingly going to social media to get their news,” Waite said. “For campaigns, it means it is an opportunity to reach out to people through alternate media channels.”

Waite said local candidates can characterize themselves and their campaigns on their own terms with Facebook. And it’s free.

“Online social media should supplement or complement your traditional campaign, rather than replace it,” Waite added, because those who rely only on the Internet could fall behind those who still go door-to-door and shake the hands of local voters.

Local candidates use both their personal pages and campaign sites to spread their messages, and most only occasionally post pictures from local events or announcements for fundraisers.

Sheriff candidates Mike Shepherd and Donnie Munden say they’ll continue to get out in the community and meet voters in person. But neither is ignoring the social media trend.

“It’s just another tool to be able to use to get the word out. It’s a free tool to use,” said Shepherd, the incumbent.

Challenger Munden said he was “one of those stubborn old people” who didn’t think he’d ever get a Facebook page but now has not only a personal site but a campaign site.

“Fortunately, there are some of my friends who have several hundred or several thousand friends,” Munden added. “If I send them something and ask them to repost it, it spreads like wildfire.”

Still, there are some who don’t use Facebook at all.

“I don’t even know how to get on Facebook. My phone doesn’t do anything but call,” said Monty Zapf, candidate for Hancock County Council, District 1. “I would hate to say I’m old-fashioned, but I just never got into that.”

But his opponents have. John Jessup and Jeannine Gray both use Facebook to post campaign information.

“We all have our circle of friends, so how effective is it, really?” Gray said. “Your friends are going to vote for you anyway.”

And while Gray will be putting out yard signs, attending meetings and sending out mailers, she also plans to up the ante on her Facebook posts over the next four weeks.

Jessup, the incumbent, said he used Facebook for his first campaign four years ago.

“I’m OK with social media because I’m very comfortable with who I am and what I believe, and I’m very consistent with my viewpoints, which makes it easy to be consistent with social media,” he said.

While a few dabble in Twitter – the social media site that uses messaging in 140-character increments – many local candidates say Facebook is the most popular site among local voters. Jessup said he will still set up yard signs and visit people door-to-door, but he’s not sure if he’ll spend the money on postcards. Facebook, he added, helps with name recognition, while pieces of mail probably just end up in the trash.

“Mailers and postcards – I know what I do with them. I don’t read them,” he said. “I would rather see ‘Jessup’ come up on a smartphone or computer screen hundreds of times.”

Most of the local candidates use Facebook for free, but Griffin is one of the few that pays the site to advertise his page. That, he says, leads to more “likes” and puts his posts at the top of news feeds.

“It’s an outlet to broadcast all kinds of things important to a campaign: photos, announcements, information about the candidate, opportunities to get involved,” he said. “If you can think of it, it’s a medium to accomplish it.”

And while the site allows for plenty of positive interaction, sometimes candidates have to monitor their image and decide how to handle not-so-complimentary posts and protect their image. Just this week, Griffin chose to delete comments from his page.

Monday, Griffin used his campaign page to respond to a campaign mailer from Eaton. Griffin pointed to what he believes were discrepancies, and in turn received more than a dozen positive comments from supporters.

But not everything was positive. Greenfield resident Jim Teeter said he criticized the prosecutor in the Facebook thread for not responding to problems he’d had, and that led to another person offering up a critique, too. Teeter said those comments were quickly deleted, and now he’s been blocked from posting anything on Griffin’s page at all.

“I got booted out. I just don’t think that’s right that they don’t allow people to make comments that the other people can read,” Teeter said. “But it was his site, and his people put it out there, so people can do whatever they want to do.”

Griffin said he doesn’t know Teeter or the situation he was referring to, and said sometimes people criticize the prosecutor’s office for problems from the previous administration. He deleted the negative comments and blocked Teeter from the site, but he said he’s open to answering questions or even leaving negative posts if they had something to do with his term of office.

“Probably 90 percent or more of the people who are posting on the page are genuinely, sincerely interested in getting information,” he said. “For them, I’m very willing to talk to them. But I can pretty quickly identify people who are reasonable and there to talk, and people who are just there to harass.”

It was actually Obama’s 2008 presidential victory that attracted Griffin to Facebook in the first place. As a new Republican Party chairman at the time, he wanted to find out what all the hype was about.

These days, Griffin said, Facebook is a necessary tool in an effective campaign, even more so than a static website that displays campaign promises. While he still acknowledges the importance of a face-to-face handshake, Griffin says the “thumbs-up” sign on Facebook is effective because it allows him to connect with thousands of potential voters.

“One of the fascinating things about social media is the ability to interact with voters,” he said.

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