Michigan Democrats — May 31, 2012 at 7:16 am

Is Democrat Steve Pestka buying Facebook “Likes” for his MI-03 campaign page?


Those are some interesting demographics you have there, sir…

A few weeks ago, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer sent a letter to the two Democratic candidates running for the seat in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Steve Pestka and Trevor Thomas. In the letter (pdf), he asked them to sign a pledge to run a “clean and fair” primary campaign. The pledge contains six items, most of which are pretty standard fare. But one of them is not. It has the candidates pledging to “avoid attacks on each other’s records and positions by any means, including the media, campaign literature, advertisements, phone calls, mailings, e-mail, and speaking engagements.”

This is a condition that clearly favors the 60-year old politician Steve Pestka. Pestka has a record since he spent time in the Michigan legislature. This particular condition seems to shield him from scrutiny. And he IS being scrutinized. Thomas has continuously hammered him on his position on a woman’s right to choose to have a safe, legal abortion and on a vote he took involving Planned Parenthood funding. Pestka says his position has evolved and he is no longer anti-Choice.

“I consider myself to be personally pro-life to the extent that I would never advocate to anyone that they get an abortion, but at the end of the day that’s not my decision to make,” Pestka said. “I don’t believe in making abortion illegal.”

Pestka said his time away from the Legislature and work as a judge led to his changed stance. He said he remains opposed to partial-birth abortions and that he voted in favor of the 2008 ballot measure on embryonic stem-cell research.

“Let me be very clear about this,” Pestka said. “I am not in support of any legislation before the United States Congress that would defund Planned Parenthood.”

His comments on existing legislation seem to allow for wiggle room and Pestka wouldn’t answer the Choice issue in an interview with Between the Lines:

He said he supports equal rights for everyone and civil unions for LGBT people but not full marriage equality. He wouldn’t fully explain his stance on abortion, saying only that his voting record while in office was pro-life and that it would not be an issue in the race.

Still Pestka is racking up the endorsements. Senator Carl Levin, former Congressman Mark Schauer, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer. A whole host of big-name Democrats are getting on board.

Thomas, on the other hand, is running what some might call a more modern campaign, one that involves heavy use of social media to create a buzz and appeal to a wider cross-section of voters. He has also picked up coveted endorsements from former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Lt. Governor John Cherry.

I have written about his campaign in the past and described him this way:

After spending some time speaking to Trevor Thomas, I came away impressed. He is smart, eloquent, fiery, and charismatic. He is a passionate advocate for the middle class and those without a political voice. At the same time he is pragmatic and a realist. I believe he will appeal to a broad section of Michigan voters. He is pro-Choice, a supporter of the rights of young people, vets and union members and he is decidedly NOT an establishment candidate, something that many voters will find compelling in the current political climate.

As Thomas lights up the social media landscape, it seems to be an area that Steve Pestka is not nearly so savvy in and this brings me to the topic of his Facebook followers or “Likes”.

At the end of April, Steve Pestka’s campaign Facebook page had a little over 1,000 likes on it. Suddenly, in the third week of May, the number of likes positively surged and, in less than two weeks, has climbed to over 7,500:

Click for a larger version

Pestka even boasted about it:

But what’s even stranger than the surge is the demographics of his followers. If you look at the screenshot above, you’ll see his “Most popular age group” is 13-17 year-olds and his most popular city is in Israel. In April, it was kids in the age range of 13-17 from the Philippines:

Pretty impressive for a 60-year old dude, eh? Pretty unbelievable, actually. It looks very much like Steve Pestka decided to buy himself some popularity. In a recent report by NPR, they talked about the practice:

Looking to get more popular on Facebook? Alex Melen will sell you 1,000 “likes” for about $75.

Melen runs an Internet marketing company. About six months ago, companies he worked with started coming to him more and more with a simple problem: They had created pages on Facebook, but nobody had clicked the “like” button.

“You would go there, and there would be two likes,” Melen says. “And one of them would be the owner. And people right away lost interest in the brand.”

For the right price, Melen can fix that. […]

Another company that sells likes showed us a Nashville country singer who was a client. She had a lot of likes — mostly from Egypt.

I reached out to the Pestka campaign to ask if they were buying likes. Spokesman Steve Coon explained it to me this way:

There were some nontargeted general Facebook ads run in support of Steve Pestka’s campaign and that practice has ended. Steve Pestka’s determined focus on the residents of the Third Congressional District has earned him proud endorsements from Sen. Carl Levin, former Congressman Mark Schauer, state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer, the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Education Association, and many other West Michigan leaders and organizations.

This, of course, strains the bounds of credulity. No “nontargeted” Facebook ad generates a gigantic surge like this by Israeli and Philippine kids for a 60-year old guy running for office in Michigan.

I contacted the Thomas campaign and spokesman Clint Wallace said:

Any professional politician can buy the appearance of support, but the only way for a Democrat to win here in November is with real grassroots people committed to the campaign and getting out to vote. The key to winning against Amash will be actually engaging Democrats and Republicans, young people and women from across the political spectrum. Folks from West Michigan are responding to Trevor’s campaign – we’ve seen that in the local volunteers who collected ballot signatures, the record number of small donors, and our engagement on social media from real people here in the district.

Steve Pestka is clearly an establishment candidate and that’s fine. He’s lined up some very impressive endorsements and is running a traditional campaign. But suggesting that all these foreign kids following him is just an unpredicted consequence of a “nontargeted” ad buy is, well, laughable, frankly. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

But when it comes to Facebook likes, it seems like Steve Pestka is.

You can donate to Trevor Thomas campaign HERE. Today is an important deadline so please don’t delay.