Candidates in Mexico's presidential race are trying to reach out to young people, who make up a growing portion of the electorate.
In late March in Mexico City, a few hundred members of Youth Action, the junior wing of the country's right-of-center PAN party, packed into the campaign house, a posh residence that is located a few blocks away from the city's main bull-fighting ring. The Youth Action members jostled for space in front of the stage, waiting to celebrate the official launch of Josefina Vazquez Mota's presidential campaign. Josefina, who trails behind her rival from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for 71 years, is relying on the youth wing of her party to rally young voters. Analysts say that as Mexico's ballooning young population comes of voting age, the country's politics will be increasingly defined by the political will of the youth. Unlike the graying societies in China, Italy and many other countries in Europe, more than half of Mexico's population is under the age of 29. Many young people are going to vote for the first time in Mexico's July 2012 election. So it's not surprising that all of the major parties are now actively courting young voters.
Young voters in Mexico are an educated, urban, and technologically savvy group. They are also more likely than their parents to be independent, not affiliated with any political party. So, all the main candidates in Mexico's election are turning to social media, mostly Facebook and Twitter, in an attempt to reach out directly to the youngest segment of voters. The major parties are also seeking to recruit young members and win their loyalty through youth focused political action groups. Nobody is certain what effect the youth vote will have on the election.
Throughout the campaign, young PAN activists have launched publicity campaigns using social media. In recent weeks, they hung skirts on famous statues in cities across the country, sharing photos of the spectacle on Facebook and Twitter. Jonathan Garcia, a 27 year old PAN activist who currently works as the PAN's National Youth Coordinator, explained "We're here to help Josefina win."
Of course, the other main candidates in the race are also using social media as part of slick, image-based campaign strategies. Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, explained, "Mexico right now is in the middle of a demographic bonus ... there are many more youth and young adults than retirees." Only 6 percent of Mexico's population is older than 65. More than a quarter of the country's population is between the ages of 15 and 29. "A significant part of the potential voting block has come of age in the last six years ... it is a demographic that is there for the candidates to capture," O'Neil said.
"We think that social networks are a way to create closeness with young people," Jonathan Garcia, the PAN's youth coordinator, said. Vazquez Mota has 603,000 followers on Twitter. Peña Nieto has 599,000. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the third candidate in the race has 423,000 followers. In the polls, however, Peña Nieto has more support than the other two candidates put together.
Tweet by tweet, Josefina's staff-members and supporters are using Twitter to help her create a new image and help the party wipe its hands of any connection to Felipe Calderón, the unpopular president who helped Mexico's economy bounce back from the 2008 global recession but who is widely blamed for the wave of cartel violence that is currently wracking many parts of the country. Inside the PAN's office there's a massive banner that says "JOSEFINA DIFERENTE" and a half-empty water-cooler size dispenser of Germstar brand hygienic hand sanitizer.
Augustin Torres, a 34-year-old congressman from Michoacán, one of the southern Mexican states that has been badly affected by cartel activity, explained that the 2012 election "is really a completely different campaign."
"Six years ago Facebook, Twitter and [smart] cellular phones didn't exist [in Mexico]. Today we have people with cell phones taking part in the conversation," he added. Even in rural areas young people are using internet cafes to access the web. Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who currently works as a professor at New York University, recently estimated that "at most [there are] about three or four million active Twitter accounts in Mexico." But, he added, "the use of social media in Mexico is segmented, [and for] urban educated youth the numbers go way up." And because those voters are so essential to any candidate's success, and because of Twitter's ability to influence bigger media narratives, the impact of Twitter is bigger than the number of accounts would suggest.
"For the campaigns, the hope is that that something that comes out as social media will get picked up as news and broadcast more widely," Shannon O'Neil said.
"Twitter has an effect," Pablo Sanchez, a 25-year-old PAN Youth Action member explained. "The media picks up [our] message from Twitter."
Candidates have used social networks to help broadcast their messages and boost their profiles, but they've also seen the strategy backfire, as viral videos of awkward stumbles during important speeches by both Josefina and Enrique Peña Nieto spread rapidly across the web.
For instance, after making a joke about the fact that she did not attend ITAM, Mexico's most elite university, Twitter users flooded the network with tweets containing the hashtag "#josefinadiscrimina" (Josefina discriminates). The comment, which was similar to a joke made by a Harvard graduate in a roomful of Yale students, was not exactly the sort of explosive material that would be picked up quickly by hard-hitting news outlets. On Twitter, however, it generated a buzz.
Alehira Orozco, a 28-year-old graduate of ITAM who coordinates social-network activity for the Josefina campaign explained that a lot of the trending topics related to the election are artificially created by political activists.
"That joke was very ITAMista," Alehira explained. "It was meant for us [ITAM graduates]," she added.