WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nineteen-year-old L.J. Tsunis has some advice for his favorite U.S. presidential candidate: start hanging out on Facebook already.
“Rudy Giuliani is absolutely making a big mistake by not being active on Facebook,” Tsunis told Reuters in a message posted through the popular social-networking site.
“Millions of votes could be had on here that may swing the election one way or the other.”
Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City and the Republican front-runner in many opinion polls, is the only candidate for the November 2008 presidential race who has not gotten the message.
Every other major player has set up shop on the site, which draws millions of predominantly young users looking to flirt, make friends and goof off.
Candidates see social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace as tools to win over young voters who are difficult to reach through more traditional campaigning.
In this early popularity contest, Sen. Barack Obama is the clear favorite so far — the Illinois Democrat even gained the support on Facebook, however briefly, of Giuliani’s Harvard-bound daughter, Caroline.
Obama has drawn nearly twice as many online “friends” who link to his profile than any other candidate, and many of them have become volunteers for the campaign.
The Obama campaign has also built its own social-networking site, my.barackobama.com, which it credits for boosting fund-raising and attendance at rallies.
“It’s a very, very useful way to organize volunteers,” said Obama youth coordinator Hans Riemer.
Others are taking notice.
“Barack Obama is not going to lose a single voter from here on out. People are with him through the end of this thing,” said David All, a Republican consultant who has urged his party to devote more attention to new technologies.
The Internet has played an ever-growing role in presidential races since 1996, when Republican candidate Bob Dole gave out the wrong address for his Web site during a debate with Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Republican John McCain pioneered online fund-raising in the 2000 race, and in 2004 Howard Dean rode the blogosphere to the front of the Democratic field before fizzling out.
This time around, online video sites like YouTube have garnered most of the headlines.
But social networks are likely to play a more substantial role when college students go back to class this autumn and the general public starts to pay more attention to the presidential race, experts say.
Facebook had 52 million unique visitors in June, while MySpace had 114 million.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-to-1 on Facebook and 3-to-1 on MySpace, said Bentley College professor Christine Williams, who studies online politics.
“There is a generation gap here that cuts in favor of Barack Obama and against Rudy Giuliani at this point,” Williams said.
Obama has drawn 299,000 supporters on the two networks to the 169,000 of his front-running Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, according to techPresident, a Web site that tracks technology and the 2008 election.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards ranks third among Democrats with 64,000 supporters. Edwards has also reached out to lesser-known social networks like Ning, Bebo and Care2.
Among Republicans, Ron Paul leads with 75,000 supporters, though he barely registers in most opinion polls.
Giuliani has drawn only 7,400 supporters on MySpace.
Campaigns will have to work hard to transfer those online friends into votes, said Kathleen Barr, director of research at Rock the Vote.
Dean, notably, was unable to turn strong online financial support into votes in the early primary voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, hastening his exit from the race eventually won by President George W. Bush.
Minnesota Democrats, however, point to success in last year’s midterm elections.
The party was able to easily identify liberal-leaning students through Facebook, said Alex Cutler, a St. Olaf College student who headed the effort. The result was larger-than-expected crowds and a boost for Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar among young voters, he said.
“We were shocked, to be honest,” Cutler said. “We didn’t know if all these people on Facebook would show up.”