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Old Wine, New Bottles: Social Media and the Presidential Campaign

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It's a truism of modern American political campaign history that candidates who understand and embrace changes in media and communication technologies are usually victorious. As a recent Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism report on "How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media" accurately noted:

From Franklin Roosevelt's use of radio, to John F. Kennedy's embrace of television, to Ronald Reagan's recognition of the potential for arranging the look and feel of campaign events in the age of satellites and video tape, candidates quicker to grasp the power of new technology have used that to convey a sense that they represented a new generation of leadership more in touch with where the country was heading.

So which emerging media technique has each campaign been utilizing in the 2012 race? Which candidate is best employing the new social media, how is he using it, and for what specific purposes? Answering these questions is important, because doing so will reveal the answer to an even larger and more important one: Who will be the next president of the United States?

If presidential campaigns are, in fact, contests over mastery of changing communications technology, it seems clear that challenger Mitt Romney is still trailing badly after Barack Obama. By most measures of how the campaigns are using digital tools -- including content posted online, number of platforms used, amount of public response and the number of shares, views and comments to posts, the Obama campaign is ahead. While Romney's campaign has made some strides to close the digital gap, it is still lagging behind.

"Digital is now a huge element of the Obama campaign and he is clearly ahead," says Nicco Mele, a pioneer in online campaigning who worked with both Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004 and Obama's 2006 Senate campaign. "Digital is mission critical for Obama -- it was front and center in his 2008 campaign, and now he has doubled down on it."

Digital strategy

Just as in 2008, Obama's current digital strategy targets very specific voter groups to a far greater degree than his opponent's. Supporters are offered digital opportunities to join many different constituency groups such as African Americans, women, young people, Latinos and so on. Once you click to join a specific group, content targeted to that constituency begins to flow to you through email and social media. The Romney campaign was late to this strategy and is still playing catch-up.

As the PEW report notes, "Obama's campaign has also made far more use of direct digital messaging than Romney's." Obama produced about twice as many blog posts and more than twice as many YouTube videos as did Romney, according to the PEW study. The gap is greatest on Twitter, where at one point the Romney campaign was averaging just one tweet per day versus 29 for the Obama campaign.

According to Twitter's blog, Obama's speech at the Democratic convention "set a new record for political moments" on Twitter. Overall, the Democratic National Convention led to an unprecedented amount of Twitter conversation -- more than 9.5 million tweets in total and about four million on just the final day, or about the same as the number from the entire Republican National Convention.

Still, the news isn't all bad for Romney. When data analysis company Socialbakers analyzed Obama and Romney's social media habits from May 1 to September 19, 2012, it found each candidate holding his own in different areas. While it's true Obama is a much more frequent tweeter, for example, Romney posts much more on Facebook. Socialbakers also found that although Obama had higher Twitter involvement, Romney's tweets go viral more often -- perhaps because Obama posts to Twitter so often his followers are less likely to share his content. Since Romney tweets so rarely, his followers may be more eager to share to their own networks. Additionally, Romney's Facebook fan base grew by 76 percent since May 1 -- although the base figure was low, while Obama's only grew by 8.83 percent over the same period.

Why does any of this matter? According to another definitive Pew study, 36 percent of social network site (SNS) users say the sites are "very important" or "somewhat important" to them in keeping up with political news; 26 percent say the sites are "very important" or "somewhat important" in recruiting people to get involved in political issues; 25 percent say the sites are "very important" or "somewhat important" for debating or discussing political issues with others; and 16 percent say they have changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on the sites.

Social network sites are naturally most influential among so-called "digital natives" -- the young people who form a significant part of Obama's base. One-third of American adults under 30 get news on social networks now, as social media have far surpassed newspapers and equaled TV as a primary source of daily news. Moreover, many of Obama's strongest supporters -- young people, yes, but also minorities and women -- are more likely to use social networks for political information.

Democrats and liberals in general are most likely to say the sites are important, and the politically engaged stand out in their use of the sites. Of course, social media users are not truly representative of the electorate -- only about 15 percent of the population is on Twitter, for instance -- and the conversation on most social media sites is among younger, more active and involved potential supporters. But this, too, favors Obama, since the election results may depend on voter turnout. If the president can convert his current lead in virtual engagement to actual turnout at the ballot box, he will inevitably triumph -- even if Romney also gets a strong turnout from his base.

Despite the recognition of digital and social media's growing importance by both camps, however, it must be noted that neither campaign is actually making much use of the social aspect of social media. Neither candidate has been replying to, commenting on, or "re-tweeting" anything from citizens or indeed anyone outside their tightly controlled campaign bubbles. On Twitter, for example, only 3 percent of Obama's campaign tweets, studied during June, were re-tweets of citizen posts. Romney's campaign produced just a single re-tweet during that period -- and that was merely repeating something Romney's son Josh tweeted.

In theory at least, digital technology allows politicians to engage in a new level of "conversation" with voters. Were this really happening, it would transform modern political campaigning into much more of a dialogue. Instead, both current candidates are clutching tightly to their past reliance on command and control. Citizen content has been only minimally present on Romney's digital channels, and while the Obama campaign has made more use of citizen voices, it has kept them confined to one area: the "news blog" on its website where that content could be completely controlled.

Another sign of this outmoded mentality is the fact that campaign websites remain at the center of digital messaging. Even if a potential supporter enters a campaign's social network page, they usually end up back on the main website to donate, join a community, volunteer or read anything substantial. A recent redesign of the Obama homepage emphasized the centrality of the campaign website further. Rather than sending users to the campaign's YouTube channel, the video link now embeds the campaign videos directly into the website -- where the only videos available for viewing are the ones Obama wants you to see.

Both sides have also been using direct messaging solely as a way to push their carefully controlled messages out, and (in Obama's case) using new media to raise money and then spending it on old media -- namely television. But with the rapid transformation of the overall news landscape showing no signs of abating, television news and political advertising, which has held onto its audience through the rise of the Internet -- so far -- is increasingly vulnerable and will soon loosen if not lose entirely its hold on the next generation of voters. Television's value as a way of persuading voters -- either to vote for you, or more commonly NOT to vote for your opponent -- is rapidly eroding. So expect to see the first truly digital election next time around!

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