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NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential election campaign took over earlier this year the Twitter and Facebook accounts he had used in his Senate election races, there was almost no-one following him.
Now, Sanders' campaign has 1.4 million Facebook likes – more than his rival for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton, who is much better known. And he boasts 446,000 followers on Twitter, which is more than the campaign accounts of Republican hopefuls Jeb Bush and Chris Christie combined.
Smart use of social media has been important for Sanders' rise as a little-known liberal from Vermont to serious challenger of former Senator and U.S. Secretary of State Clinton.
Twitter is now trying to take its role in the 2016 White House race to another level by enabling campaigns to
gather online donations via tweets.
Under a partnership between Twitter Inc and mobile payments company Square Inc announced on Tuesday, campaigns are able to tweet URLs known as "$Cashtags" to request donations. Supporters then enter details of their debit card and other information to donate to a candidate.
Sanders' campaign, despite its love of social media, does not expect a big windfall from the new function, said
Kenneth Pennington, the campaign social media director.
"Our social media strategy is not about raising money, that’s not what we do on social media," he said. That’s not the focus on our work. The focus is getting the message out.”
Big-money Super PAC (political action committee) donors would still dominate the fundraising field, said Robert Entman, Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
"Younger people tend to use Twitter more and they might have enthusiasm, but they probably have less money to contribute," Entman said.
Small-dollar, online donations "are going to be swamped by the Super PACs and wealthy individuals who are making huge contributions. And that's what matters most," he said.
Sanders has eschewed the proliferation of big money in politics. He is funding his campaign for the Democratic Party's nomination to run in the November 2016 election through small-dollar donations.
His campaign test drove the new Twitter fundraising tool on Tuesday but said it was too soon to know how much in donations that could produce, or whether they would keep trying.
Candidates would benefit from the easier, more interactive
donation process, but those with less name recognition and a broader, more active base stand to gain the most from donations on Twitter, said Daniel Kreiss, Assistant Professor of Political Communications at the University of North Carolina.
"The candidates who have engaging and lively and very quick responses," Kreiss said, "are going to be the ones who are going to be able to benefit from this."
Twitter said on Tuesday that six other campaigns, all Republicans, were already using the new tool.
They included the campaign of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a frequent user of social media to reach a young audience with his libertarian message.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is another previously low-profile candidate who has leveraged social media to win attention among a crowded field of Republicans vying for the party's nomination.
Carson has more than 590,600 followers on Twitter and 2.88 million Facebook likes.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump has 4.15 million Twitter followers but the real estate mogul has less of a need of donations because his campaign is largely self financed.
Democratic front-runner Clinton's campaign on Tuesday tweeted a "$Cashtag" asking supporters for donations.
"Hillary has been fighting for women and families her entire life. If you're with her, chip in today," her tweet read.
For more on the 2016 presidential race, see the Reuters blog, “Tales from the Trail” (here).
Additional reporting by Meredith Mazzilli, Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Grant McCool