Will Mitt Romney’s Facebook Friends Comfort Him In Defeat?

Originally published December 4, 2012

Reports indicate that former presidential candidate Mitt Romney is experiencing “sustained boredom” following his loss Nov. 6. But the real question is:  Will the government let him keep his nearly 12 million Facebook friends to comfort him in his loss? The Facebook pages of both Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have been largely silent since Election Day, except for a sweet photo of Romney hugging his wife, Ann, that was shared in aThanksgiving Day post.

The 2012 general election may have been the most “social” in history, but that doesn’t mean that election law has caught up with Facebook, a platform used extensively by campaigns during the last election to not only communicate with voters, but to gather valuable demographic and voter data.

The question now is: What happens to the care and feeding of the candidates’ Facebook pages?

The question can have real implications, give the level of support online for the Republican ticket. While Romney trailed President Barack Obama in total Facebook page likes, Ryan easily bested Vice President Joe Biden in total Facebook page likes, with 5 million.

According to a piece in Politico, the Romney campaign essentially “owns” Ryan’s Facebook and Twitter channels, although it’s unclear whether the Wisconsin congressman can claim the PaulRyanVP handle as his own. The piece says, “Whether such online accounts can be legally transferred to another candidate or third-party group falls into an area of election law that is murky at best.”

Each campaign had a team of digital strategists charged not just with posting to Facebook and Twitter, but building voter information, email lists, and other communication vehicles using Facebook and other social media channels.  It seems like too much work has gone into building up Facebook profiles to just have the candidate relinquish control of something that represents a digital brand.

If Romney’s campaign gave the accounts to Ryan, it could exceed the federal limitations on campaign contributions from one candidate to another, which are set at $2,000, according to campaign finance attorney Adam Bonin, who was quoted in Politico’s piece. Ryan could feasibly purchase his Facebook page from the campaign. But how would the cost of Facebook users be valued?

Members of Congress have the added dilemma of having to manage separate Facebook pages for their campaigns and official personal offices due to congressional guidelines.

On Thursday, Zac Moffatt of the Romney campaign will hold a debrief with the Republican National Committee, and he is expected to turn over all of the digital files — along with valuable voter information and email lists — to the organization.

According to Vincent Harris, who advised Newt Gingrich’s campaign, Romney should hang on to the “digital keys to his kingdom,” rather than sharing the information with the RNC. The Facebook pages represent a distinct brand, he says in Politico, and despite the ding to a political profile that comes from a resounding loss, there is tremendous value represented within the page. If Romney decides to write a book, he has a built-in network to market his work to.

Sarah Palin seems to have successfully navigated these waters, transitioning her popularity immediately after 2008 into a strong Facebook presence, which she has since used to comment on news of the day, as well as to make announcements about her political future. She left elected office, however, and hasn’t had to navigate the murky waters of Federal Election Commission laws.

Obama has taken to the approach shared by Harris by keeping control of his campaign’s Facebook page and other data rather than submitting control to the Democratic National Committee.

Readers: Do you think former candidates, such as Ryan, should be allowed to maintain control of their Facebook pages?