Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney spar during the CNN GOP debate in Arizona.
Edward M. Pio Roda/CNN
Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney spar during the CNN GOP debate in Arizona.

Story highlights

Grass-roots social networking is increasingly important for GOP candidates

Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are all benefiting from passionate online support

On Facebook, there are dozens of groups devoted to Rick Santorum

The DailyPaul.com is getting 250,000 unique visitors a month

Editor’s Note: Micah Sifry is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a website that examines how technology is changing politics, and the author of “WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency.” This commentary is part of a series of “Campaign Tech” articles that will run through 2012 and explore technology’s role in the presidential election.

CNN —  

Why isn’t the Republican presidential race over already?

At this point in 1996, after weighing a divided field, Republicans had coalesced around Bob Dole, even though he had narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to Patrick Buchanan.

Likewise, at this point in 2008, John McCain had already locked down the endorsement of chief rival Mitt Romney and was cruising to the nomination.

But in 2012’s roller coaster of an election cycle, there’s been no closing of the ranks around a front-runner. Even after presumptive front-runner Romney’s wins this week in Arizona and Michigan, the question of who will be the eventual GOP nominee remains very much unanswered.

Campaign-technology pundit Micah Sifry
James Roderick
Campaign-technology pundit Micah Sifry

The reasons are complicated, and next week’s Super Tuesday primaries could shake things up yet again. But amid the various factors, there’s one change that hasn’t gotten enough notice: the increasing importance of lateral social networking on the part of grass-roots conservatives.

And this isn’t just a Ron Paul story; much bigger chunks of the Republican base, including tea partiers, anti-abortion activists and evangelicals, are using social media to form self-reinforcing factions within the larger party that are less and less susceptible to what nominal party leaders may want them to do.

This isn’t to say that the rise of the super PACs or the never-ending series of TV debates aren’t important to keeping the Republican field fluid. Both of those are hugely important factors.

The debates – 21 so far – not only pull candidates and their senior teams away from retail politicking and toward mass-media politicking, but also have the effect of leveling the playing field for at least three and sometimes four contenders. Gingrich in particular has benefited from this dynamic.

Second, we can’t underestimate the rise of super PACs and billionaire donors like Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, whose injections of huge sums of cash in support of Santorum and Gingrich, respectively, are enabling those candidates to get a second, and maybe even a third, life after weak showings in early battles. Without those donors, there’s little doubt that both of those candidates would probably have decided to drop out after Romney won in New Hampshire.

Grass-roots activists would have a hard time keeping the race going on their own, without standard-bearers like Paul, Santorum and Gingrich to rally around. But as long as those candidates keep running, social media and social networking will continue to empower conservative voters and activists who care passionately about certain issues, enabling them to create strong factions within the Republican electorate that are less controllable by party leaders.

As Martin Avila, the conservative online strategist who worked on Paul’s 2008 web campaign, said to me last Thursday:

“The pundits are completely stumped as to what’s going on. They say Romney’s got it locked up, and then everything just changes. I think that’s a real consequence of what is happening online with the conservative movement. Up until this cycle, conservative grass-roots activists haven’t been online as much. On the left that happened a long time ago. Ron Paul was the start, then you had the tea party movement, and now you have the evangelicals on Facebook, on Twitter, discussing things on FreedomConnector.”

Avila has a point. Consider, for example:

• On Facebook, there are dozens of groups devoted to Santorum, including one for every state. Most are closed (you have to ask to join, which means these are trying to be real organizing hubs), and they’ve each got anywhere from a handful to hundreds of members. Gingrich supporters on Facebook are similarly distributed. These kinds of groups have social capital that can’t be turned off from above – unless the candidate himself drops out of the race.

• On FreedomConnector.com, an open social network for conservatives (built by Avila) that launched a year ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference, more than 168,000 users have created nearly 7,000 groups and more than 2,000 events. You can see from the regular polls done on the site that Paul, Santorum and Gingrich are all benefiting from passionate support bases that refuse to compromise on their beliefs.

• The DailyPaul.com, a hub for Paul supporters, is attracting 250,000 unique visitors a month, according to Compete.com. On the RonPaulForums, another hub for volunteers which is currently getting about 100,000 unique visitors a month, there are hundreds of people active on the site at any given moment.

• In addition to support from billionaire Friess, Santorum is being lifted by an outpouring from small donors – more than 100,000 in February alone, his campaign says. On Fundly, a social fundraising site, the Rick Santorum page has nearly 3,000 donors who have built personal fundraising pages generating an average of about $80 each. The Mitt Romney page has two donors who have created personal fundraising pages, one of whom is his son Tagg.

The list goes on. The fracturing of the Republican base is a natural byproduct of the emergence of more lateral, networked activity by grass-roots activists reinforcing each other.

Or, as Avila put it to me last week, “Broadbased, issue-focused, principled factions within the party have a much stronger voice.”

So, when someone says social media aren’t changing politics, don’t listen. Right before our eyes, the power balance within the Republican coalition is being remade. And some part of that is due to grass-roots conservatives using social networking.