Thursday, December 1, 2022

With traditional campaigning impossible, social media takes the spotlight in local elections

Photos, flyers and announcements from New Hanover County’s GOP and Democratic parties have been posted to their social media accounts over the last few weeks. Port City Daily / photo collage by Mark Darrough

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Facebook users who are at least 18 and location-linked to New Hanover County might have noticed a recent uptick in local political advertising. 

The local factions of both major political parties are counting on social media outreach for success at the ballot box. With many normal campaign procedures, like door-to-door, now impossible, local party leaders hope to tap into the potential of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to reach and sway swing voters. 

“We have been aggressively planning on Facebook for the last year, year-and-a-half, and preparing to do ads initially for the campaigns,” said Will Knecht, chairman of New Hanover County GOP. “We raised a significant amount of money to underwrite an effort, and the whole focus is name identification. It’s all about name ID of our candidates.”

With early voting starting Oct. 15, and the election less than a month away, campaigns across the country are entering their final stages. Effective Facebook advertising, as seen nationally in 2016, is a major goal for both parties in New Hanover County for the 2020 election. The New York Times listed New Hanover as a nationally relevant bellwether county, and the Trump family has targeted the area in a series of recent visits.

On Facebook and Instagram, county Republicans are in the midst of an advertising campaign that targets voting-aged residents over 18. The advertisements show pictures and names of the candidates for New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, and some advertisements list the candidates’ highest priority issues. 

Knecht said the local Republican party will be boosting its presence through billboards, similarly with the goal of strengthening candidate name recognition. Additionally, they have planned to deliver sample ballots and other materials to 50,000 doors in the county, specifically to Republican and right-leaning unaffiliated voters. 

“We’re trying to reach a certain demographic as well, especially on Instagram, the younger demographic,” Knecht said.

Knecht’s counterpart in the New Hanover County Democratic Party, Richard Poole, said Democrats are making similar moves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

“We’ve had videos created for us,” Poole said. “We did quite a few on voting by mail, and some content that’s not video-based, but instructional, on how to vote by mail, candidate profiles, in an organized way.”

Poole and Knecht both said digital outreach has become more relevant in this election cycle, and that the spending has increased to reflect that. 

“Because our traditional campaigning has been restricted so much, we’re trying to push out in other directions that are, at least for us nontraditional, to try to make up for it,” Poole said. “Social media is one of those areas.”

The Republican candidates for the board of commissioners — Deb Hays, Skip Watkins and Bill Rivenbark — are all featured in individual Facebook advertisements on behalf of the county GOP. 

“We think it’s strategic,” Knecht said. “It’s been a tough year raising money for our candidates, obviously. We told them we would take the social media side, so they could invest their resources elsewhere.”

Poole said the results of his party’s social media advertising campaigns is to be determined.

“The honest truth is, I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t have a feedback loop that really tells us what’s effective in terms of motivating voters to act, to actually go to the polls or vote for a candidate.”

In the time between mid-February and the end of June, the Republican BOC candidates were out-raised by the three Democratic candidates.

Collectively, in this time period, the Democratic BOC candidates — Jonathan Barfield, Leslie Cohen and Kyle Horton — took in $15,429. The three Republicans raised $7,561.

At the end of June, when the most recent campaign finance data was made available, the cash status for both parties was comparable.

Republicans reported having $38,648 cash on hand. Democrats reported $38,592. 

Knecht said the GOP will be fine-tuning its social media process in the coming weeks, though it’s still somewhat unclear how Facebook will manage existing advertisements in the week prior to Nov. 3. 

Facebook announced in September that the company will not accept new political advertisements in the week before the election. 

“We’ll know November 4 whether it was effective or not,” Knecht said. “We’re putting a lot behind it, you’re going to continue to see a lot.”

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