11/21/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New Study: How Photos on Pinterest Predicted the Election


Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog nailed the numbers on election night. But had you been keeping up with Pinterest, you would also have seen strong data suggesting that President Obama never lost significant momentum and was on track to win a second term.

Nate Silver is all about crunching numbers. Pinterest allows analysts to "crunch" photos.

At its core, Pinterest enables its users to grab a photo from any online site and "pin" that photo to a specifically designated "virtual pinboard." That functionality allows researchers to see patterns that become apparent when massive numbers of photos are all collected on the same board. Meanwhile, simultaneously, via various kinds of tagging, public users can "repin" or "follow" or "like" the boards and "pins," cueing those researchers about who is interested in what.

PrezPix, a study just released by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA), used Pinterest to analyze 8,780 photographs over four months of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. The study looked at 21 major American news outlets -- including Fox News, CNN, The Huffington Post, Politico, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today -- to see what visual messages about the candidates those outlets were sending. (Full disclosure: I led the study.)

Top Findings? (For additional key findings, visit

  • 1. Photographic coverage of President Barack Obama remained very positive following the first October presidential debate -- and in many cases became more positive. Despite Obama's precipitous drop in the polls after the Denver debate, news outlets around the country did not go (visually) negative on the president, PrezPix researchers found.
  • The real change in the photographic portrait of the race for the presidency in October was the decrease in negative photos of Gov. Mitt Romney, and a general move towards greater parity in the tone of coverage. (See the charts here.)
  • 2. Romney got more play, but Obama got better play. During the fall election campaign, news outlets overall published more photos of Romney than of Obama, but Romney rarely appeared as "likeable" in photos as Obama -- except on Fox News, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Miami Herald. Romney's drop in "likeability," however, was a reversal from the primary season, when significantly more flattering photos of Romney appeared than of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul.
  • How did Obama appear more "likeable"? Outlets showed him smiling more often than they did Romney, engaged with the public more often, and surrounded by more enthusiastic and diverse supporters -- college students, women, factory workers, Latinos, African Americans.
  • Such media images not only suggested how good the president's advance team was, but served to reinforce his position as the president of the middle class and the "47 percent."
  • 3. Photos of Michelle Obama made the president look good. The PrezPix study also documented how positively the media pictured President Obama and his wife. In an election where women, minority and youth voters played deciding roles, the universally attractive photos of Obama and his wife played well with all three of those core demographics.
  • Again and again the photos pinned to Pinterest showed the couple as friends, as intimates, as having fun -- all powerfully subliminal messages about the character of the president. By contrast, the images of Mitt and Ann Romney were more formal, even at their most positive. (See the "Top Ten" romantic photos of Obama and his wife published during the campaign.)
  • Right now the home page of Pinterest is all about pictures of puppies, mouth-watering desserts and swirling dresses. In fact, if you are a guy, it's possible that you haven't yet heard of Pinterest -- or if you have, you've dismissed it as a "girly" site. Even the site itself highlights that it is perfect for those who want to "organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web... to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favorite recipes." That doesn't exactly sound like the kind of site that would help campaign staffers or journalists evaluate the political mood of the country.

    But here's another takeaway from the study: PrezPix documented that Pinterest is a stealth tool for researchers.

    I predict that in 2014 the backroom data folks for both the Democrats and the Republicans -- as well as the journalists who are covering them -- will be using Pinterest to tap into the national psyche, perhaps especially of women. Women may well remain the core demographic of Pinterest and they will certainly be the key demographic for any winning political coalition.

    Pinterest is not just for cupcakes anymore.


    Here's some backstory on the PrezPix study: Researchers from ICMPA and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, "pinned" over 5500 photographs of Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney during the height of the fall election in September and October and over 3200 photographs of the four major Republican challengers -- Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum -- during the February and March primary election season. Researchers then coded the photos and analyzed the boards to identify trends in how online news outlets visually portrayed Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney and each of the GOP candidates and how viewers responded to them. The study's results are posted on