won last night's Iowa Caucus by eight votes, and the consensus on what role Twitter and social media played in the contest may be just as evenly split.Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
Jenn Deering Davis of TweetReach, a social media analytics service by San Francisco-based Appozite that tracks Twitter mentions and reach on a wide range of subjects, said Tuesday afternoon that volume about the Iowa caucus was "pretty low."
"We track more tweets in an hour about a single TV show than we have in five days about all nine candidates," she said.
Yet if you only paid attention to the social media scorecards leading up to Tuesday's race, Ron Paul would have been your clear-cut pick to win. While Paul finished a respectable third, his finish did not live up to the pre-caucus hype on Twitter and in the tech press.
One of the reasons why social media once again failed to predict election results is that it is still, by-and-large, a way for voters to connect and follow their favored candidates. Undecided voters may still be turning to mainstream and traditionally objective media sources, and may be less likely to post comments about a candidate on Facebook or retweet a campaign update.
"We've seen a lot of buzz today [Tuesday] from the campaigns about their final preparations and turnout efforts," said Eric Wilson, a strategist with the Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm Engage. "There's an impact on voters as they feel more connected to the campaign and will therefore be more likely to caucus if they feel as though they are a part of the campaign because they 'know' the candidate through social."
But at least in Iowa, and perhaps for the remainder of the 2012 election cycle, social media will be just that: media that helps voters understand what has happened on the campaign trail without necessarily predicting what will happen next. Just like polling data, fundraising totals, ad spending and endorsements, social media - at least in terms of politics and at least for now - seems to be reactionary.
By late Tuesday afternoon, Davis said the race was a toss up between Romney and Paul, who were closely followed by Gingrich and Santorum, based on Twitter traffic. But while Paul did better than originally expected, in the end it was Santorum who surged. That may be because Santorum and Romney had better social media reach, garnering more mentions from mainstream media accounts, Davis said.
Romney also got the most number of retweets, with an average of 150, followed by Paul at 110. TweetReach's analysis of a Twitter account's influence incorporates tweet volume, the number of unique users tweeting about a candidate, and retweet rate.
On the other hand, "no one seems to care too much" about one-time Republican front-runner Michelle Bachman, Davis said Tuesday, which was reflected in the final results; Bachman ended up with just five percent of the vote.
What all of this means for candidates is that many of the traditional factors are still in play. While 88 percent of U.S. social media users are registered to vote, the average Twitter user's age is 31, and younger people -- regardless of whether they are registered to vote or not -- tend not to make it out to the polls on election day.
While 2010 is an eternity ago in social media trends, 22 percent of online Americans used social media to follow politics in the 2010 midterm elections. At that time, the people using social media for political reasons tended to be more connected and more tech savvy than people who did not, according to a Pew Research study. That early-adopter factor may have been a factor in Iowa, but it is also likely too soon to tell what role social media is going to play in this year's race.
"The key thing I would stress is that social media support and enthusiasm is a key indicator in 2012, but the question is, what is it indicative of?" said Wilson, the political strategist.