Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (R) stands with his wife Michelle (L) and children Malia (2nd L) and Sasha (2nd R) after his speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (R) stands with his wife Michelle (L) and children Malia (2nd L) and Sasha (2nd R) after his speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Before 2008, winning an election didn’t require a social media strategy, or even a Twitter or Facebook account. Now running for any public office without a strong social media presence almost automatically sets a candidate up for failure. Startups are helping to engage voters in the political process, and providing tools to politicians. VoterTide is providing social media analysis to quickly figure out what issues supporters care about and react quickly to breaking news. Other startups like Votizen and Votifi are trying to make sure that voters aren’t just involved in the political process every four years, but every day.

Social media had a huge impact on the 2008 presidential elections in the U.S. It’s difficult to measure whether the larger number of conversations about Obama compared to McCain were the result of him engaging online or simply due to his overall popularity, but according to Edelman Research, Obama had 10 times the online staff of McCain, so the president clearly devoted more resources to social media than his opponent. There were four times as many YouTube viewers, five times as many Facebook trends, and twice the website traffic for the Obama campaign, beating McCain in every online category. Since it’s another U.S. presidential election this year, both candidates and voters are looking to online tools again to mobilize voters and discuss election issues.

Not everyone will take the time to write a letter or phone their representative, but people gladly vent their anger about a policy or decision on Twitter. Jimmy Winter, co-founder of candidate sentiment-tracking startup VoterTide, said in an interview with BetaKit that with monitoring tools, campaigns are able to peer into those comments, thoughts and issues that are voluntarily expressed millions of times per day by constituents on the internet.

VoterTide is helping political candidates monitor all those conversations happening on social networking channels. It’s a social networking analysis and monitoring platform, focusing exclusively on the political vertical. But even that narrow focus comes with significant complications, as tracking a politician’s social media goals and progress is very different from tracking what brands are trying to monitor and analyze. Winter expressed in an interview that even trying to compare Obama’s online buzz to a local mayor’s isn’t something that makes sense. “We’re not trying to be everything to everyone, so we’ve been able to customize VoterTide to best handle data about politicians, political issues and advocacy,” he said.

Similar to a Klout score, VoterTide gives a “Tide” score to each politician based on their social media buzz. Obama currently has a Tide Score of 72.8, but that score has been as low as 53.8 and as high as 94.8, with an average of 78.1. Ron Paul is currently sitting at a 36.8 Tide, with a high of 65.5, a low of 28.3 and an average of 45.6.

Processing the social media sentiment surrounding elections, campaigns and candidates is not only tricky because of the nature of the vertical, but also due to the sheer amount of data involved. Consider, for instance, that whereas Obama counted five million friends, followers and connections across 15 social networks in 2008, heading into the 2012 race he has 25.4 million Facebook fans alone, and 12.8 million followers on Twitter.

In Canada, Next Parliament is tackling the political space by providing a way to make sure that politicians know exactly how their constituents feel with regards to any given issue. Anyone who registers with their postal code can vote on an issue and have discussions with other members. A summary of the citizens’ positions are sent to the member of parliament the end of every month. With this system, what politicians voted on can be compared to what the constituents are asking for. Next Parliament co-founder Cristian Contreras said in an interview they have many more plans to make those issues visible to politicians in a way they can’t ignore. “Once we launch in public beta, we will communicate the views of our user base by taking those issues that resonate the most with our users and converting them into petitions that will be sent to Parliament Hill on their behalf every two months.”

In a time when voter participation continues to fall, getting people to vote on individual issues may sound like a difficult task. “Our assumptions is that about 10%-25% of users will generate the bulk of the content while the remaining users vote on and approve or disapprove of it,” Contreras said. “Next Parliament is not a direct attack on the system, but rather intended at checking the leeway politicians have in their claims to represent the will of their constituents.”

Startup Votifi is taking on the same problems that exist in the U.S. Many Americans only become involved in the electoral process once every four years, and 89 million Americans didn’t participate at all in the 2008 election. Votifi is trying to involve voters in politics anytime they want to voice ideas. Votifi co-Founder Aasil Ahmad points out the effect voter apathy has on democracy. “That’s a huge percentage of the population whose voice is essentially not counted,” he said in an interview. “A disconnected, disillusioned and disheartened electorate gives greater chance for elements on the periphery of the political spectrum, be they left or right, to drive the agenda to the detriment of others seeking more pragmatic solutions.” At SXSW Votifi introduced an iOS app, and aims to become the “mobile home for your political life.”

Having citizens vote on individual issues may sound like democracy at its finest, but it leaves many questions about how the system works. Citizens don’t have the time to read every single argument for why one system is better than another, verify those claims and have them placed into action. Next Parliament tries to tackle this issue by appointing citizens who are more educated on a particular issue to offer their opinions on policy improvements. “These users are charged with the task of crafting and improving upon the formulations of would-be policy, while the remaining users agree or disagree with them,” Contreras said. They’re experimenting with several options such as a “Vote of Confidence” button to give certain authors credibility.

View this full article on here on BetaKit, a new publication covering emerging tech and global innovation.