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For Palin's Facebook Friends, It's Complicated

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With over 1.8 million fans on Facebook and one of the best small donor lists among national Republicans, Sarah Palin could route around her party’s establishment and still win the presidential nomination in 2012.



That’s the argument some conservatives are making after sifting through her latest FEC filing, as the Daily Caller reported this week, and it’s one rationale for the political media’s intense coverage of Palin’s every status update.  But are Palin’s “friends” and followers truly a constituency-in-waiting, or more of a passive media audience?



Palin’s latest foray into testing her online network turned out tepid.  Her professionally-produced video touting “Mama Grizzlies,” which drew tons of press last week, was only viewed by less than 2 percent of her Facebook fans, as The Nation reported.  So if Palin’s Facebook friends, who presumably like her and follow politics, didn’t tune into a video getting lots of political play, what exactly are they interested in?



On Facebook, it turns out that Palin fans are most focused on prominent Republican politicians and conservative media figures.  The top ten pages that Palin fans “like” include her potential 2012 rivals, such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal; media stars like Glenn Beck and Dave Ramsey; and two apolitical inspirational figures -- Michael Phelps and “God.” 



So for at least some conservatives, a Facebook relationship with Palin is more complicated than exclusive. (Some of the 1.8 million friends are less likely to back a presidential bid if their loyalties are split.) In fact, the most popular page among Palin fans would surprise most Palintologists.



It’s the page for John McCain, which roughly 27 percent of Palin fans continue to “like,” long after the 2008 campaign.  So a sizeable chunk of Palin’s social media base may simply reflect her fame as a running mate, rather than deeper ideological or personal bonds. After all, in today’s GOP, McCain and Palin partisans rarely make common cause.  (The data is from an analysis by Pete Warden, a former engineer at Apple who studies social media.)



The geographic distribution of Palin’s Facebook fanbase is more conventional. She has the most fans in her home state of Alaska and across the South, including Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina (an early primary state.) If Palin does ramp up a national campaign, of course, her supporters’ intensity and money will be more important than their location. 



Even if Palin’s media hype has made her something of a paper grizzly, some experts stress that she is still far ahead of most potential rivals. Dave Weigel, a chronicler of conservative politics, noted on Thursday that “even the lowest estimate” for Palin’s online audience bests conventional presidential aspirants like Tim Pawlenty.  And if the media continue to give monolithic, inflated treatment to Palin’s online network, she can retain a lucrative spotlight based partly on Facebook and YouTube theater.  As Politico’s Ben Smith recently noted, Palin may prove to have more influence over reporters than voters.  She may have trouble getting “supporters to click on a video,” he blogged, but “Sarah Palin is getting her money’s worth from the lamestream media.”

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this piece was published. His first article tracking data on Palin's social media, "Sarah Palin, Paper Grizzly," is available at TheNation.com.

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