Miami mayoral candidates have differing views on using social media to attract voters



Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado is an expert communicator on TV and radio, the traditional media he worked in for decades as a journalist, but he has less experience with online social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and doesn’t expect to use the social networks to promote his reelection campaign.

“I really see social media more as a way to communicate with residents rather than on a campaign,” said the 66-year-old Regalado, who said those who use Facebook and Twitter aren’t really the same as the elderly Hispanic “super voters” who traditionally turn out for Miami’s November elections.

His opponent, Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, plans to invest “significant” resources in campaigning online with the goal of drawing in younger voters to the race.

“We wanted to do something different than the way campaigns are typically run in the City of Miami, which are focused on certain segments and basically ignore others,” said Suarez, a 35-year-old attorney.

That’s why Suarez’s campaign has hired the creative social media marketing agency, The brpr Group, to manage and produce his digital social content for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The strategy includes buying ads on Twitter that target users in Miami who mention words such as “tech” or “Regalado,” said agency co-founder Gerard Bush.

His campaign is also producing a series of short online videos, including one that highlights how easy it is to order absentee ballots online.

Suarez isn’t the first candidate who tries to leverage social networks and the Internet to motivate voters, although few at the local level have put this much effort into their online campaigns.

The strategy was pioneered in 2008 by Barack Obama, who won the presidential elections with the help of the youth vote and millions of dollars in online campaign contributions.

Since then, candidates at all levels of government have paid increased attention to the Internet, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

“Turnout is a problem with young voters, and all candidates are looking for the right strategy to change that pattern,” she said. “The huge question mark here is whether social media campaigns will work in local elections when there’s an even lower turnout.”

A recent local campaign that had a strong online presence was last year’s capital bond issue for Miami-Dade schools.

Unlike Suarez’s campaign, the online strategy for the schools did not rely on paid advertisements on Twitter or Facebook because it benefitted from supporters with their own popular social media accounts, said campaign spokesman Tom Martinelli. Among them were retweets from Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho and former Miami Heat player Alonzo Mourning.

“When Carvalho or Alonzo Mourning retweeted us, our message would get to their thousands of followers,” Martinelli said. “The same thing would happen when Raquelita [Regalado] retweeted us.”

Raquel Regalado, a school board member and daughter of Miami’s mayor, said promoting the schools campaign online was more successful in some parts of the county than others. For example, she organized virtual town halls to educate parents about the issue in Coral Gables and Key Biscayne, but not the City of Miami.

“What we did in the city was get on Spanish radio,” she said. “I did an ad talking about termites in schools and we did live shows, taking calls from listeners.”

In the Miami mayoral campaign, both Suarez and Tomás Regalado recognize the importance of traditional campaigning through radio and TV ads, sending mailers and visiting voters at home.

Regalado said he uses his Facebook and Twitter accounts to share information with residents about the city, and not as a campaign tool. “Residents send me personal messages and questions. It’s an opportunity to talk to them,” he said.

Regalado had just under 1,040 Twitter followers on Saturday afternoon, while close to 11,000 people “liked” his Facebook page. This year, the mayor has sent about 40 Twitter messages, both in English and Spanish, on issues ranging from gun violence to Cuban dissidents.

Meanwhile, Suarez has less than half as many “likes” on his Facebook page than the mayor. But this week, his Twitter account surpassed Regalado’s in popularity, with more than 1,100 followers.

His Twitter page uses a modern design in the blue-and-red color scheme that appears in other campaign material. His tweets frequently include the hashtag #OurTimeIsNow, his campaign slogan.

Both Suarez and The brpr Group send out the tweets from his account, primarily in English and focused on his campaign, with occasional mentions of Heat games and local news.

Close to a quarter of his tweets so far this year have been direct messages to other Twitter users. Suarez said this kind of interaction is part of the reason he likes social networks.

“When you do a TV or radio ad, there isn’t a way for the voter to interact directly with you,” he said. “Social media gives you this neat advantage. It allows not only for a lot of people to see it, but to interact and give feedback.”

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