As Congressman Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) heat up their campaigns to win the race for governor in 2012, one valuable piece of territory will be the expanding virtual landscape of social network such as Facebook and Twitter.

So, who is winning the social networking game since Inslee’s June 27th announcement? In the early weeks of the campaign to secure footholds in social media, a tie of sorts exists in which McKenna has a strong advantage in the data-rich Facebook realm and Inslee owns the pole position on Twitter where a throng of more than 1,200 currently follows micro-postings from @JayInslee.

In a recipe for electoral success, social networking has moved up from being a condiment to a necessary side dish to complement a campaign other pieces. The Paul Revere effect of a network of supporters carrying a campaign’s message far, wide, and loud, racing ahead of opposing spin or misinformation is of critical importance, particularly if the contest leans to the darker practice of attack politics.

The necessity for making a mark in social media has not been overlooked by the campaigns. On the same day that Inslee announced his run, he also kicked off the not-so-subtle measuring contest over which candidate could erect the biggest social network. The message sent from his Twitter account crowed of a burst of new followers:

Though Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) had thrown his hat in the race a full 19 days earlier, Inslee surged ahead on the Twitter tote board and even four days later on July 1st, McKenna’s Twitter account had yet to break 1,000 followers. Inslee had already built a small syndicate of 1,245 followers receiving his micro-posts of 140 characters or less.

NW Daily Marker has indexed key social networks statistics of McKenna and Inslee from July 1st and July 8th, after campaign launch bumps had flattened. In the terms of gross numbers, each can claim to be king of their own hill, but McKenna’s Facebook advantage and the pace with which his page has grown is something worth noting.

In that week, the number of users ‘liking’ McKenna’s Facebook page rose by 721, from 10,088 to 10,809, casting a shadow over Inslee who ended the same period with 8,716 ‘likes’ on his page, a gain of 232.

But in social media, the size of your following is less important than how you use it.

According to the analytical tools created by Klout to assess the real value of a social network, McKenna holds a slim advantage in terms of his network’s ability to do what is most important in politics—influence voter decisions.

Klout’s program (still officially in beta release) analyzes the usage and behavior, combining information from a person or organization’s various social media accounts into a simple dashboard of performance indices including a composite Klout Score representing overall influence across all social networks. Influence boils down to the willingness of the network to act upon information by passing it along to their own friends and acquaintances. The maximum Klout Score for any social network is 100. As of July 8th, Inslee’s Klout Score was 51 while McKenna’s stood at 53.

But is piling up Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers just an exercise in ego support or does the process serve a genuine function in a campaign to win votes?

Social media networks can perform double-duty as a venue for organizing and a replacement for word-of-mouth message transmission that in today’s closed-off society doesn’t occur the way it once did. In 2008, Pres. Barack Obama’s campaign’s adept use of the Internet and social media to overcome obscurity in the early days of the campaign were undeniable factors in his eventual victory. It was a lesson campaign wonks took seriously and now the Internet—once viewed as a wasteland for fringe types—and its full capabilities feature front and center in the communications plans of most officeholders and candidates.

According to a Pew Research Center study released in January 2011, 22% of online adults used social networks to get information about the 2010 elections, a slice cut from the two-thirds portion of the U.S. population who regularly go online.

And as the population of political social media users has grown, the practice has graduated from a quirky behavior confined to the kids’ table of 18 to 24-year-olds. A Pew study in the lead-up to the 2008 election cited only 4% of voters 30-39 and 1% of voters over 40 got any kind of campaign information from sites such as MySpace of Facebook. By the time of the 2011 Pew study, 29% of age 30-49 and 33% of age 50 and above were using social media for politics.

While there is no way to know exactly how much influence social media will have on the outcome next November, in an election is as close as recent polling in the Washington governors’ race adept use of social networking is almost certain to play a critical role in the eventual victor’s path to victory.