Popularity Contest: Can Facebook and Twitter Predict Election Results?

VIDEO: 29 million voters who backed President Obama in 2008 did not show up in 2010.
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Popularity helps in politics, especially having "friends," "followers" and people who "like" you.

In November's elections, the candidate who more people "liked" on Facebook won in 71 percent of Senate elections. Twitter was even more accurate, with the candidates with more followers winning in 74 percent of elections.

Facebook says it watched 118 races in the Senate and the House, and found 77 winners had more "likes" than their opponents did. Furthermore, candidates with twice as many fans as their opponent won by at least 3.9 percent.

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, were often better predictors of election results than how much money a candidate raised and spent, according to Facebook. In 42 of the races Facebook analyzed, the winner had more "likes" but less money.

The two Senate candidates who spent the most of their own money, Republican Linda McMahon of Connecticut and Democrat Jeff Greene of Florida, did not win. Greene did not win the Democratic primary. McMahon spent almost $42 million and Green spent close to $24 million on the primary, according to the FEC.

But as of November 1, McMahon had only 15 more "likes" on Facebook than the winner, Richard Blumenthal, even though she spent more than seven times as much.

In Florida, Jeff Greene had only 644 "likes" on Facebook compared to the Democratic primary winner, Kendrick Meek, with 24,135 "likes." (Meek lost the general election to Republican Marco Rubio.)

Furthermore, according to the FEC, six out of the ten top-spending Senate candidates did not win election.

"The consensus is that money makes a difference but it's hard to quantify," said Andrew Gellman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. "[Campaign finances] are important, but non-linear. The extra $10 million does not help as much as the first million."

Facebook Election Predictions Have Limitations

Just as money can't buy an election, social media, like Facebook and Twitter, have their limitations as signs of success in a campaign. Facebook failed to predict some high-profile elections.

For example, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, a tea party Republican running for Senate, had more Facebook and Twitter fans than Democrat Chris Coons did. But all the Facebook friends in the world couldn't help the star of the "I am not a witch" ad win. She lost resoundingly, by nearly 17 percent.

For some candidates neither money nor friends help. In the California Governor Race, Meg Whitman had more Facebook followers, but still lost the race. Whitman had the third largest number of Facebook followers out of all candidates in 2010. The billionaire former eBay CEO also spent more money on her race than any other candidate in 2010.

Republican Sharron Angle of Nevada, who raised more money from donors than any other Senate candidate, also was not elected. Angle also had more Facebook "likes" than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but still could not win the election.

"[Social media] provides information about comparisons…trends and changes could be informative on the subset of people on it," said Gellman. However, he cautioned, "You get more information out of it if you respect limitations. If you try to get too much, you get nothing."

An incumbent, for instance, is more likely to win an election, even if they have a smaller online following than their opponent.

In the 2010 Senate races, 91 percent of incumbents won re-election, even in highly contested races in California and Nevada. Only two incumbents lost, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin.

One more surprise: Facebook and Twitter were less accurate at predicting who won the youth vote than the total vote.

Facebook and Twitter Did Not Predict Youth Vote

Facebook correctly predicted 45 percent of the winners of the 18-to-29-year-old vote, and Twitter correctly predicted 55 percent of the races for which exit poll data on younger voters was available.

Young voters are much more likely than older voters to use social media. According to Pew Research, 86 percent of 18-29 year olds use social media.

"The effects of social media [on the youth vote] are hard to quantify. It's hard to imagine it wouldn't affect the vote. However, youth voter turnout has been really consistent since 1994," said Peter Levine, the Director of The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Social media are also less reliable than survey and poll data, the current most accurate way to predict election results.

"This year, the polls were spot on," said Levine.

"People answer surveys sincerely," said Gellman. "If you support the Republican and you lie, you make the Democrat look better."

All Senate candidates in November used social media, with one exception: Democrat Jim Rogers in Oklahoma. Rogers did not have a website for his campaign. Rogers lost.

Many voters see Facebook as an important communication tool for interacting with candidates.

"Facebook will be the single most important communication tool of this decade. Politicians who realize this are forward thinkers, or at least good marketers... I would not vote for a candidate who did not have a Facebook and Twitter presence," said Chad MacDonald, a Facebook user from Los Angeles. MacDonald says he follows over 25 politicians on Facebook, and he's on the Twitter feeds of over 100 politicians.

Facebook Users Vote for Candidates They "Like"

"Liking" a candidate on Facebook is a sort of 21st century bumper sticker – a public reflection of who a person will vote for.

"I voted for the candidates that I 'liked' on Facebook if I was able to," said Facebook user Sharon Dwyer of Philadelphia, who said she likes six candidates on Facebook. "Some that I supported were not in my state so I could not vote for them, but supported them financially because they reflected my values and beliefs and I thought they would be helpful to our country."

According to Edison Research, 41 percent of Americans have Facebook profiles and 7 percent of Americans use Twitter. Eighty-seven percent of Americans know what Twitter is, and 88 percent know what Facebook is.

"[Social media] is interesting and promising…It is intriguing to think of social media as a new method [to predict election results]," said Levine.

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