The 2012 election is more than a year and a half away, and already the candidates are positioning themselves to take on what will undoubtedly be one of the most important battlegrounds -- social media.
While Iowa and New Hampshire can bicker about which is more important to the early voting process, they are overlooking one crucial element: in another year they could both be diminished by an even earlier vote -- Facebook.
Facebook could very well replace Iowa and New Hampshire as the most important early voter forum in the primaries.
The upcoming presidential election will be the first in history to be truly defined, not just shaped, by social media. Why? Facebook and SuperPACs are now friends.
Two reasons why we will see this shift to social media: (1) social networking has grown exponentially -- if politicians and parties want to find friends and curry voters, this is where they need to go; (2) free speech trumps regulation in the online ecosystem -- and with the new phenom of SuperPACs, the political landscape will be highly influenced by those who are promoting a particular agenda and those who can do it online.
This is the first presidential election where we will see the practical impact of the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (which struck down the 20+-year ban on certain political contributions by private corporations).
This is also the first presidential election where social networking was more than a fad or fringe experience, but the modern equivalent of the telephone and town square. Today, voters are more likely to receive and share information about politics and politicians from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube than TV or traditional media.
For the first time, voters, political action committees (PACs) and campaign supporters will have unprecedented freedom to campaign and raise funds online for their chosen candidates. Think Obama's online fundraising was impressive in 2008? That will be nothing compared to the amount of activity that will happens in the 2012 race.
These changes will dramatically transform the landscape of the 2012 election, as social media becomes the key battleground for candidates, political parties, PACs and voters. Social media could also erode the traditional advertising market for TV networks.
Expect all of these rapid changes to create a considerable amount of turmoil in the campaign process as candidates and parties will have to "re-learn" campaigning, in a new socially-driven world.
It's also going to be the key to fundraising. More money is going to be raised and moved through social networking sites and other online campaigns than ever before -- making them critical to a campaign's success.
As Obama proved in 2008, the power of small online donations can be profound, and the fight for these dollars will be more competitive than ever as each candidate adopts similar tactics into their fundraising strategies.
As each candidate spends more time on personalized social media campaigns, their traditional commercial advertising efforts will suffer. Television's shrinking reach simply cannot complete with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and their growing audiences. Coupled with the relatively low costs of online engagement, we could experience more pop-ups than political ads.
Now, through strategic use of targeted campaigning, candidates will have an opportunity to create tailored and personalized appeals to these voters.
Thanks in large part to content sharing, social media has become the most effective and affordable way to brand a campaign, reach the masses, and build relationships. Whether it is through advertising, surveys, videos, or personalized tweets, social media allows countless ways for candidates to get their message heard.
The true winner of the election will be the candidate who effectively uses these digital platforms to influence and ultimately connect with those voters who might not otherwise enter into the political arena.
We'll have to wait to see how social media shapes the election and change the landscape for future elections. But there is no doubt that it will have a game-changing effect, because for the first time, how an election is won and lost will be decided online.