Social media and the US election

by Anna Fifield / 03 November, 2012
Social media helped Barack Obama become president. And now both camps have taken their digital strategies to a whole new level.
Social media’s prominence in the US election

When Michelle Obama wanted to congratulate her husband for his performance in the third and final presidential debate, on foreign policy, on Monday night, she turned immediately to Twitter. “Barack’s steady leadership has made us stronger and safer than we were four years ago. That was clear tonight. – mo”, she tweeted a mere 10 minutes after the debate ended, including her initials to signify that this pearl was written by her, not by campaign staff. And when Barack Obama wanted to encourage his supporters to get their votes in early, he also used the microblogging site. “I’m following @MichelleObama’s example and voting early, on October 25. If your state has early voting, join me,” he wrote, including a link to his campaign’s absentee voting page, and signing off the tweet with “bo”.

If 2008 was the year Obama tore up the old electoral playbook, using digital technology to capitalise on his historic candidacy and encourage unprecedented numbers of young people to vote, then 2012 is the year the Democrats have turned the use of technology into an art form. In the words of Jim Messina, Obama’s re-election campaign manager, “This is light years ahead of where we were in 2008. We are going to make 2008, on the ground, look like Jurassic Park.” Indeed, both Obama and his Republican rival for the White House, Mitt Romney, are embroiled in a cyber-war. It’s no longer enough to press flesh and kiss babies on the hustings – modern presidential candidates have to connect with voters online as well.

Both campaigns have leapt feet-first into social media as they try to eke out every vote in what is shaping up to be an exceptionally close election. The polls over the past few months have been volatile, with both candidates paying the price of their mistakes: Romney from a series of gaffes including writing off half the electorate as “victims”, and Obama from a surprisingly lacklustre performance in the first debate. They are now neck and neck in the nine swing states that will determine the November 6 election, making this a fight for every ballot and the 270 Electoral College votes that will hand one of them the White House. The campaigns and their supporters are using traditional methods to appeal to voters in these states, spending more than US$1 billion to deluge them with television ads, mailers and phone calls. But at the same time, the candidates are devoting ever-more attention to new media. This also helps them circumvent old media – newspaper and television journalists have a pesky habit of adding facts or opposing views to their reports.


It seems there is no limit to the number of platforms the candidates will use to connect with voters: from boring old email – supporters regularly receive messages from the candidates asking for money or votes – to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Obama has more than 32 million likes on the former and more than 21 million followers on the latter, while Romney pales in comparison with 10 million and 1.5 million respectively. Both use the platforms to get their message out, but also to show their more humorous and human sides, something that is especially important for Romney, who is trailing in the “likeability” stakes. But it doesn’t stop there.

There are photo sharing sites Instagram and Flickr, which show pictures of the candidates and their families on the campaign trail, and Tumblr pages, where photos, ads and tweets are collated. Obama’s Tumblr – “tumbling for change since 2011” – is more energetic than Romney’s, posting humorous animated graphics (or “gifs”) as well as the more conventional campaign pitches. Meanwhile, the candidates’ wives are on Pinterest, the site geared more towards women, where users “pin” things that interest them. Michelle Obama posted their wedding photo on their 20th anniversary; Ann Romney pins her favourite baking recipes and pictures of cakes with patriotic icing. Barack Obama even has a playlist on Spotify, the digital music service, which includes everything from Bruce Springsteen to Florence and the Machine. So why all this effort, right down to playlists and recipes?

Social media - Barack Obama's Facebook page

“This is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run,” the President wrote when he hosted a live chat session on social news site Reddit in August. Those driving the campaigns believe social media enable them to connect with voters, especially younger voters who might not watch much television or read newspapers but spend hours online. “Social media is the native language of this generation,” says Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a popular website with astute political coverage as well as an inordinate number of cat photos.

The Obama campaign, with headquarters in Chicago that look like a Silicon Valley start-up, says its sophisticated digital strategy is helping its ground game, encouraging volunteers to do more traditional canvassing such as door-knocking, as well as creating a direct line to voters. “It’s about authentic communication with all kinds of people about President Obama and his plan to move America forward – whether the campaign shares something directly with our supporters, or better yet, our supporters share something with their own networks,” says Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the Obama campaign. “That validation from a friend, when someone they know likes, forwards, tweets or retweets something that’s inspired them, that’s most effective,” he says.


Obama’s technological outreach is light-years ahead of Romney’s, independent experts say. In addition to social networking, the President’s re-election gurus have created an innovative canvassing tool, Dashboard, which is available as a smartphone app, to help volunteers appeal to would-be voters without having to visit a campaign office and collect a clipboard. When I load the tool on my iPhone, for example, and push the button for “canvass neighbors”, little blue flags tell me there are seven registered Democrats on my block who could do with a bit of face-to-face encouragement. There’s Troy P two doors down and Michael W across the road. The app also gives canvassers a script for when they go door-knocking. “Can we count on your support to lend some time and energy to help re-elect President Obama?” it suggests they say. There’s space to add email addresses and a field for notes about the encounter, then all the information is uploaded to the mother ship in Chicago.

If this gives the Obama campaign even a one or two point advantage over Romney in swing states such as Ohio and Iowa, this could be a game-changer. After all, the 2000 election was decided by just 537 votes in Florida. Indeed, the increasing use of social media is a direct result of 2000. After the “hanging chad” saga in Florida that saw Bush vs Gore go to the Supreme Court, political campaigns have realised a few hundred votes in even one swing state can make all the difference. It is also the result of increased political polarisation in the US, which means only 5-10% of voters are persuadable, while the rest are entrenched. Campaigns not only have to convince voters of their candidate’s superiority, but also have to persuade them to vote at all. So social media are being used to energise the 90% as much as they are to swing the 10%.

“We have been building a ground operation that will give us the one or two points we need to win these states and we are on track to do that,” Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said at an event during the Democratic National Convention in September. The Obama campaign has 50 field offices in North Carolina, for example, the most tightly contested of all the swing states, while the Romney campaign does not even have 20. In Ohio, the Obama campaign has more than 100 offices, more than triple Romney’s. “The Romney campaign is doing more than the McCain campaign did,” Messina said, referring to 2008. “I want to give them credit for that. But they are nowhere near where we are on the ground.”


Social media - Mitt Romney's Facebook page

For its part, the Romney team is doing its best to keep up, operating across every social media platform. “The digital success of our campaign is not defined by any one platform but rather about how they holistically integrate with each other and the overall goals of the campaign,” says Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director. “Some platforms, because of their size, audience and reach, you have to be on them – the drivers for us are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and Google+ – while others provide specific outreach to fragmented audiences. Our goal is to be on any platform where we can have an authentic engagement and provide value to our online communities,” Moffatt says.

The campaigns’ emphasis is always on connecting with voters. But they are reluctant to talk about the behind-the-scenes digital manoeuvring that some voters might find sinister, such as data mining, “micro targeting” and its even more precise cousin, “nano-targeting”. “If the innovation in 2008 was social media, the innovation in 2012 is micro-targeting through Big Data,” says Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics, describing the change as “exponential”. Four years ago, the Obama team was a pioneer in website development and online fundraising, which enabled the future president to shatter all previous records with his US$800 million campaign. In comparison, George W Bush’s election campaign in 2000 cost US$100 million, considered an outrageous amount of money at the time. This year the candidates’ campaigns are expected to raise US$1 billion each, while the mostly Republican-aligned outside groups will raise an additional US$1 billion.

The Obama campaign’s huge database of supporters and piles of cash, combined with a young support base energised by its hope and change message, helped the President’s team build a field organisation that remains in place, and unparalleled, today. But this year, both campaigns are taking the use of social media to a new level, combining knowledge of their supporters with information about their online preferences and online behaviour. Both are deploying an unprecedented number of website tracking tools to create profiles of people’s internet habits, enabling them to be targeted with personalised ads when they visit other websites. The Financial Times reported late last month that hosted 160 unique monitoring technologies on its site from May until August, according to Ghostery, a firm that keeps tabs on online tracking. had 110 unique tracking technologies over the same period. By keeping watch on visitors to their sites, the campaigns’ tech whizzes are able to write algorithms to tailor their message to their audience and – hopefully – influence voters.


“Everything about how campaigns at a presidential level are getting out the vote has changed,” says Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the internet at George Washington University. Every time someone uses social media, they leave a digital trace, and all those traces are being collected and cross-checked against voter files. States keep rolls of who is registered and who shows up to vote, and some also include party affiliation, giving campaigns an extra piece of vital information. The scope for picking up information from these digital traces is huge. About 60% of American adults use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre’s Internet & American Life Project. It also found that two-thirds of these users – or four out of every 10 American adults – have used social media for civic or political activities.

“All this demographic and behavioural information – the websites you’ve been to, the pages you’ve liked – is now fodder for the campaigns as they attempt to get out the vote. That’s a big change,” Cornfield says. For example, a mother in Wisconsin who orders eco-friendly nappies and drives a Toyota Prius might see a banner ad featuring Michelle Obama, and a Latina student in Nevada who visits TMZ, the celebrity gossip site, might see an ad in Spanish. The Obama campaign might not even bother with a middle-aged man in Virginia who has a gas-guzzling SUV and gets his news from Fox, the conservative channel. Tailored messaging does not end with the computer screen. It is all linked so volunteers who head out with clipboards know who lives in a house before they knock on the door and they are told what points to emphasise to appeal to that particular voter.

Although Obama has the advantage on the ground, the playing field is much more level when it comes to micro-targeting, Cornfield says. “Neither campaign really has the edge in this technology. Obama has more field offices and volunteers in the battleground states, but they both have the same access to technology.” Rasiej agrees the two campaigns are more evenly matched on micro-targeting, but adds that Obama has an advantage simply because his team has been at it longer. “And the longer that you’re at it, the smarter the data gets,” he says. Privacy advocates have voiced concern about the massive amounts of personal information the campaigns are collecting, and about what happens to the data after the election. Both campaigns say they are keenly aware of privacy concerns and will not pass information onto third parties. But the bottom line for both is to get elected. As Rasiej puts it: “The campaigns’ job is to win, not to create a better democracy.”

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is the US political correspondent for the Financial Times.
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