Who's the "smartest" U.S. senator in social media?
That would be former presidential candidate John McCain, according to a recent study, which ranked the Arizona senator at the top of the study's so-called "Digital IQ" index.
Second on the list is fellow Republican Jim DeMint from South Carolina, and close behind him is newly minted GOP star Scott Brown, who stunned political experts in January when he beat Obama-backed Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy's long-held seat in liberal Massachusetts. That the top three senators all hail from the GOP suggests that Republicans have gotten a firm grip on a tool that Democrats once seemed to dominate.
Republicans scored about 5.5 points higher on average compared to their Democratic rivals, according to the non-partisan study, which was conducted by New York University professor Scott Galloway and George Washington University professor Doug Guthrie.
"The Republicans are the underdogs," Mr. Galloway explained. "They're just trying harder -- there's a greater sense of urgency for them."
With President Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress, Republicans have charged hard into the digital fray in their bid to win back seats this November. Among the 27 senators running for re-election, Republican incumbents recorded a three-point advantage over sitting Democrats.
The GOP's advantage, according to the study, "is the result of more robust participation on Twitter and YouTube," where Republicans score higher on average, 26% and 29% respectively. Democrats, however, hold a 5% advantage on Facebook.
For their index, the researchers looked at various digital media elements, such as Facebook "Likes," number of Twitter followers, number of YouTube uploads as well as traffic to their own sites.
"Social media is a barometer for how people are feeling, their sentiments which can turn into intentions," said Mr. Galloway. "This could be a forward-looking indicator that Democrats could have a tough time in November."
Looking more specifically on Facebook, for example, Republican senators grew the amount of "Likes" 6.7% month-on-month, compared to 3.6% for Democrats. On Twitter, Republicans grew their "Follower" rate by 4.5% vs. 2.8% for Democrats.
While the study focused on sitting senators, it did examine some of the challengers in tight races. Despite Democrat Barbara Boxer's high ranking on the list at No. 7, her deep-pocketed competitor, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, could beat her in the midterms. On Twitter, Ms. Fiorina has over 280,000 "Followers." Ms. Boxer has just more than 21,000. The former computer executive also has three times as many Facebook "Likes" than the senator and more than 18 times as many views on YouTube.
The leading liberal member on the list is Sen. Al Franken at No. 4. "Sen. Franken's a very colorful character and a strong personality results in a large following on any medium," Mr. Galloway said.
But for those who don't come with built-in name recognition, the study shows that Mr. DeMint is perhaps the current paradigm for digital distinction.
Mr. McCain has the highest score in the study, but he also has the advantage of being his party's most recent presidential nominee, Mr. Galloway said. Mr. DeMint, however, is pursuing an assertive effort for Twitter traction. "He's following over 30,000 people," Mr. Galloway said. "That's a very aggressive strategy. Sen. DeMint isn't actively watching the feeds of 30,000 people -- he is trying to build a Twitter following."
The study found that 20% to 30% of the people that the senators added reciprocated by following them back. That dynamic helped Mr. DeMint expand his follower count to about 47,000.
But the most untapped resource in the world of social media, Mr. Galloway said, is Bill Clinton.
"If he were actively engaged in a robust Twitter program he would have a big impact," he said. "No one can work a room and press the flesh like bill Clinton, and this is the biggest room in the world."