By Rob Parsons
MERCED, Calif. — Social media networks are playing a role for the first time ever in a Merced County sheriff's campaign.
All four hopefuls in the Merced County sheriff's race — Pat Lunney, Jim Soria, Frank Swiggart and Vern Warnke — are using a combination of Facebook, Twitter and websites to rally supporters and build a voter base in Merced County.
Stephen Routh, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, said social networking websites changed the game for campaigns at every political level, beginning in 2004 with the founding of Facebook and again in 2006 with Twitter.
"It's an important new arrow in the quiver of any political candidate," Routh said. "Candidates can get their messages out quickly, and it's much cheaper than buying campaign ads on television and radio."
This year marks the first time these tools have been available in a contested race to be the next sheriff in Merced County.
Merced County's last contested race for the sheriff's office was in 2002 when Mark Pazin defeated three other candidates. Pazin ran unopposed in 2006 and 2010, leaving office late last year for a job in the California governor's office. Tom Cavallero was appointed to finish the final year of Pazin's term and chose not to seek election.
Exactly how much of an advantage social media may be in the sheriff's race remains to be seen, but any edge a candidate gets could be critical, especially in what's expected to be a low-turnout race like the upcoming June 3 primary.
According to the Merced County Elections Office, only about 27 percent to 30 percent of registered voters are expected to cast ballots in June. That leaves four candidates competing for somewhere between 25,000 and just over 28,000 total votes.
Candidates who use social media early on in a campaign may have an advantage over those who adopt those tools later in the race, political strategists said, especially if the race turns into a November runoff between the top two vote-earners in June.
"For small county-level campaigns, Facebook is the most effective use of time and resources," said Ryan Waite, executive vice president of Campaign Solutions, a political consultant group.
All four candidates for the sheriff's office have embraced Facebook and other web-based tools to varying degrees.
Lunney established a Facebook page, "Pat Lunney for Sheriff 2014," and a website, lunneyforsheriff.org.
"It's what people use to stay informed at this time," Lunney said. "We've used the website to post our response to issues like concealed-carry permits and other issues like that."
Swiggart's campaign also uses a Facebook page, "Frank Swiggart For Sheriff," a website, and swiggartforsheriff.com.
"We use it to post key events and to keep people up to date on the movements and positions the campaign takes," Swiggart said. "We have our positions up in writing and it helps people get to know where we stand on issues, saving them the trouble of asking those questions in person."
Warnke too has a website, vernforsheriff.com, and Facebook page, "Vern Warnke For Merced County Sheriff 2014."
"Facebook was brand new to me, but it's been a great way to communicate directly with people," Warnke said. "It helps organize events and updates people on the campaign schedule."
Soria established a Facebook page, "Jim Soria For Sheriff," and uses it in a similar fashion.
"We're mainly using Facebook to post thoughts for the day or inspirational messages," Soria said. "I think it's very effective."
Political strategists said campaigns in smaller communities like Merced County should rely primarily on traditional "shoe-leather" or "retail" strategies, but said social media tactics have become crucial.
"Nothing substitutes meeting voters face-to-face through door-knocking or speaking with them directly on the phone, but social media should absolutely be used to complement that effort," said Bonnie Jean von Krogh, managing director the Lew Edwards Group, a political consulting firm.
Political strategists said social media, and Facebook in particular, is more effective organizing volunteers and helping build a base of voter support if developed early, von Krogh said.
"Facebook allows candidates to target specific groups and build audiences for specific issues, like the Second Amendment, for example," Waite said.
Waite said some campaigns also use Facebook as a fundraising tool.
Warnke's campaign has used Facebook to raise money more than the other candidates. "We've had a lot of offers that way," Warnke said. "That's been a good thing, because I just can't stand asking people for money."
Waite said social media power should not be underestimated, especially when so many candidates compete for such a small pool of votes, saying, "It can be a helpful way to get out the vote on Election Day."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 the Merced Sun-Star