Social networking has become critical to the 2012 presidential campaign and one analyst said Facebook is accurately predicting swings in the election polls.
While Republican candidate Mitt Romney has gained strength and Facebook followers since the Oct. 3 presidential debate, President Barack Obama also remains strong and continues to grow his social base, according to Ian Lurie, CEO of Portent Inc., an Internet marketing and online tracking company.
"Social media is making a big, big difference in how we connect with these candidates," Lurie said, "What's going on in social media really reflects what's going on in the election as a whole.... Of all the different social networks, Facebook is telling us the most about how the candidates are doing."
Facebook has its pulse on the election more than other social networks, such as Google+ and Twitter, because of its huge user base. The company has more than 1 billion active monthly users around the world. There are 168 million Facebook users in the U.S., and 154 million of them are of voting age.
Both campaigns are putting a lot of money and muscle into using Facebook, in particular, to reach potential voters, get their messages across and motivate people to cast ballots on Nov. 6.
This is more true this year than ever before, according to Lurie.
In 2008, the Obama campaign did a better job using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, than the John McCain campaign did, Lurie noted. While a recent Google survey showed that a majority of people think the Obama campaign is savvier about using social media, Lurie said the Republicans have come on strong in this campaign.
"Social networking is a thousand times stronger this year because both campaigns are so involved," he added. "It really is orders of magnitude."
According to Lurie, the debate between Obama and Romney drew many new followers to Romney's Facebook page. Before the debate, Romney generally saw a 1% daily growth rate in terms of new Facebook followers. In the days right after the debate, the rate of growth increased to 1.5% per day.
"It doesn't sound like much, but it's a pretty big jump when you have 8 or 9 million followers," said Lurie. As of last Friday, Romney's Facebook page had about 9.1 million followers.
That increase in Facebook fans seems to follow along with recent polls that showed Romney coming from slightly behind to moving slightly ahead of Obama after the first presidential debate.
However, according to movement on Facebook, Obama is still strongly in the race.
Lurie said Obama has nearly 31 million followers on Facebook. "The Obama campaign has been something of a juggernaut," he said. "They have as many followers on Facebook as there are people in Texas."
What was generally seen as a lackluster performance by Obama during the debate didn't hurt his Facebook numbers.
Lurie noted that the Obama campaign also caught a jump in Facebook followers but, unlike his opponent, who saw an immediate increase, the president's came later. Two days after the debate, Obama's daily growth rate on Facebook went from 0.05% to 0.18%.
While Obama may not have scored a lot of points during the debate, his campaign came out strong on social networking sites immediately afterward and in the ensuing days, posting information about Romney's statements during the debate, specifically focusing on Medicare, women's health issues and education.
"What they did on Facebook kept the debate going," said Lurie. "The amount of shares and likes on those posts was very, very high. His shares per person went up by 40% or 50% compared to the day of or the day before the debate."
There was a fluctuation in numbers last week, as well.
Lurie noted that Obama's Facebook page showed "explosive growth" between Monday and Thursday of last week, adding 1.2 million new followers. Romney, meanwhile, had a slowdown in his growth rate since last Tuesday, has slipping from 1.5% to 1.2%, according to Lurie.
As of late Friday, Lurie did not have any numbers on how Thursday night's debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan affected Facebook growth in shares and likes for either campaign.
How accurate can Facebook be in tracking the pulse of the election when the average age for Facebook users is 22?
According to Lurie, there's a large enough cross section of voters on Facebook -- people of various ages from numerous geographical locations -- to make it an accurate tracker.
"The fastest growing audience on Facebook is 45-plus," he added. "I know who's on there, and I see a lot of activity from people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They're sharing and forwarding things. They're participating. There's no question."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin and on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.