In Alaska, candidate's call for impeachment resonates on Facebook

Is calling for President Obama’s impeachment smart politics for Republican candidates hoping to strike a responsive chord with Republican base voters and galvanize them? If the reaction on  Facebook to Alaska GOP Senate hopeful Joe Miller’s call  for a takedown of Obama is any indication, the answer is without a doubt “Yes!”

In last week’s debate between GOP Senate hopefuls in Alaska, Tea Party favorite Joe Miller insisted: “It’s time to impeach this president for dereliction of duty, selectively enforcing the law, and usurping powers that the Constitution does not authorize. He is willfully undermining the rule of law and creating chaos.”

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Miller then challenged the other Republican Senate candidates to join him in supporting the impeachment of Obama. They did not.

The reaction to Miller’s takedown challenge on Facebook was immediate. Engagement on Miller’s Facebook page, as measured by “People Talking About This” data or PTAT, surged past 45,000 -- 30 times his average over the last several months that we have tracked. By comparison, according to our tracking, Miller’s opponents in the primary, Republicans Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan, received no spike in Facebook engagement after the debate.

Miller’s campaign capitalized further on his call for impeaching Obama by posting frequently on the subject on Facebook and promoting a direct conversation between Miller and Facebookers about it. Now, with primary election day tomorrow, Miller’s Facebook PTAT still dwarfs his opponents.

Miller’s surging growth in fan engagement on Facebook demonstrates the power of the impeachment issue with Republican base voters. It also underscores what we have found since we began tracking campaign Facebook metrics in 2012:  Facebook provides an important window into measuring the effectiveness of campaigns in striking responsive chords with voters and engaging them.

In 2012, we found that eight out of nine toss-up, general election Senate races were won by the candidate with the more engaged fan base. Twenty of the 33 most competitive House campaigns across the country were also won by the candidate with a measureable Facebook fan engagement advantage.

Our weekly forecasting model, based on measurements of Facebook “likes” and “PTAT” over time, more accurately predicted the percent of the vote won by major party candidates in seven contested Senate races in 2012 than poll-of-poll averages calculated from 212 public opinion surveys during five of the last eight campaign weeks studied. And we used Facebook data in 2013 to forecast a 55.04 victory for Cory Booker (D) in the New Jersey special Senate election -- very close to Booker’s actual performance on Election Day.

While the latest polling by PPP published on August 5 still shows Miller in third place in the primary and a full 15 points behind Dan Sullivan, Miller was the “biggest gainer” in the poll. His surge on Facebook indicates that Miller’s push for Obama’s impeachment is resonating with Alaskan conservatives and providing real momentum to his campaign online.

Will Miller’s online surge translate into a stunning upset at the polls on August 19? Our forecasting model is not geared yet for primaries, but the surge in engagement for Miller on Facebook that we measured as we prepared to train our model on the general election in Alaska should give his opponents’ pause. 

MacWilliams is a Ph.D. candidate at UMass, Amherst. He is the founder and president of MacWilliams Sanders Erikson, a strategic communications firm. Berns is a former research assistant at UMass, Amherst and works for Strategy Group, a direct mail firm. 

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