Since Howard Dean’s groundbreaking 2004 campaign used the Netroots to push a little-known governor into the frontrunner position, the web has rewarded candidates who are first to act and most willing to innovate. That’s why cautious Republicans, dominated online for the subsequent two cycles, finally learned their lesson in 2009 and took to Twitter in droves, a medium where they still have a leg up today.
 
But as we look ahead to the midterm elections and the 2012 presidential campaign, no major candidate has leveraged the first-mover advantage by seizing the next social media craze – location-based services. These social networks – like foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places – allow users to share their location with their friends. So if the user walks into a restaurant – or a political rally – he or she can “check in,” and alert their friends or, in this case, their constituents.
 
Among these services, the current leader of the pack is foursquare, which surpassed 3 million users last month and is growing faster than Twitter was at the same stage. Foursquare offers awards or “badges” to people for checking in to certain places or frequenting the same location a given number of times. It even has a political tie-in of sorts, offering the “mayorship” of a location to the person who checks in there the most. And they recently announced the creation of an “I voted” badge that will be awarded at polling places on Election Day.
 
A campaign that uses foursquare properly will reap myriad potential benefits. Campaign trail events will “trend,” a feature that shows the most popular locations in an area. So, when the candidate is holding a rally anyone in town who is on foursquare will know about it regardless of whether or not they are in the candidate’s network.
 
These networks can serve a grassroots function as well, motivating volunteers with badges if they come to phone banks or go door-knocking. The campaign could demonstrate grassroots strength, by showing how many more check-ins they received than their opponent. And as the foursquare tracking capabilities expand, campaignscan use the data to gather information about those who are coming to their events.
 
Check-ins will be popular with publicity-seeking local businesses as well. The candidate pictures adorning the restaurant walls will never become obsolete, but foursquare check-ins can become their modern equivalent, keeping a virtual track record of all the politicians who stop in for a meal. All of these benefits are magnified for the candidates considering a run for the presidency in 2012. With the vacuum of leading political figures using the location-based services, a presidential candidate is uniquely suited to fill that void and reap the substantial benefits.
 
Just as those who jumped on the Twitter bandwagon early have a follower count much higher than their peers – think Ashton Kutcher, Meghan McCain, or Sen. Claire McCaskill – the first presidential candidate on foursquare will attract an outsized following.
 
Along with the follower base will come the fawning. Everyone from tech bloggers to cable news pundits will heap praise on the candidate for their foresight and hip quotient.
 
These 2012ers can use this attention to ensure the entire political world knows that they are working hard to help downballot candidates this fall. That message is amplified each time someone gets a cell phone alert saying something like: “Tim P. just checked in at Terry Branstad HQ.”
 
The candidates can also use foursquare to create branded badges for supporters – the Mama Grizzly and Gold Medal Mitten versions would surely be a hit. And they can check off the essential campaign stops across the country, be it Taylor’s Maid Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa, Brown’s Lobster Pound in Seabrook, New Hampshire, or Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, South Carolina. The political media will eat it up – a whistle-stop tour brought directly to their iPhone.
 
All these benefits are accrued by signing up for a medium that is free and practically gaffe-proof. Unlike Twitter, which is ripe with potential for an errant tweet, foursquare doesn’t entail crafting a message, only clicking two buttons on the candidate’s Blackberry. For any political candidate the pragmatic value of location-based service should make it a no-brainer.
 
And if that’s not enough for aspiring presidents up and down the ballot then this should be: imagine how satisfying it will be – after years of checking-in – to finally become Mayor of the Oval Office.
 
Tim Miller is a digital public affairs strategist at The Glover Park Group. He previously served as Iowa Communications Director for John McCain’s Iowa Caucus campaign. Follow him on Twitter - @TimoDC.