When it comes to using social media to engage a wired-in sector of the US electorate, one presidential candidate proves more adept at working the web to his advantage.
Despite efforts by Mitt Romney’s camp to close the digital gap â€“ notable among them a contact-gathering smartphone app â€“ President Barack Obama’s digital campaign still sees far more Facebook, Twitter and YouTube interactions from followers, according to a Pew study released Wednesday.
Researchers at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed over 3m total interactions, comprised of Facebook likes, Twitter retweets and YouTube comments, between the dueling campaigns and their followers.
On one hand, the findings are obvious: as more potential voters start hanging out on and connecting via mobile to big-name platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the campaigns are going where they think the eyeballs are. On the other, research shows both camps are taking a more targeted approach to the web compared with 2008 â€“ in other words, campaigns going where they know the eyeballs are.
Allowing prospective voters to break down issues by topic and location on campaign websites is a tactic pioneered by Obama and emulated by Romney, according to project founder Tom Rosenstiel.
“The chance that [campaigns] are wasting time and effort is probably smaller,” Rosenstiel told the Guardian. “There’s no question the more you can tailor your message in politics the more effective you are. We’re seeing a lot more tailoring than four years ago.”
When it comes to sheer productivity, Obama’s massive staff â€“ in June, it was 750 compared with Romney’s 87 â€“ has maintained the president’s lead by dwarfing Romney’s postings on Twitter, out-blogging him on the Obama campaign website and matching Romney’s activities on Facebook.
“I give nothing but credit to the Obama folks who run a very successful program with a very large staff that we are always amazed by,” Zac Moffat, digital director of the Romney campaign, told the Personal Democracy Forum in June. “In size they are clearly ahead, but in terms of engagement, no, they are not.”
Indeed, in an election cycle that will go down in history for its fundraising gluttony, staffers spending time with the humble retweet or Facebook “like” isn’t the sort of thing that raises money. As Moffat noted, the Pew report found that engagement is a problem, but with both candidates. (In fact, they’re far more likely to mention each other than they are to mention individuals. A third of Romney’s posts are about Obama.)
However, with back-to-back party conventions looming, a candidate like Mitt Romney could easily help narrow the gap, according to a longtime party strategist.
“Live events are simply naturals for follower growth,” Todd Herman, former new media director for the GOP, told the Guardian. “So, if the two parties don’t gain massive numbers of followers by truly integrating the viewer into the experience it will simply be due to a lack of creativity or an over-abundance of caution.”
Right now, Obama is the victor in terms of creating social media buzz â€“ a value nearly as nascent now as it was in 2008 â€“ but there’s still the looming question of whether courting tweets, likes and comments actually leads to voter action.
“There’s an old axiom in politics,” Rosenstiel said, “Half of what you do is probably a waste, but you don’t know which half, so you do everything.”
Speaking of doing everything: when it comes to something like the “Mitt’s VP” app â€“ which, depending on who you ask, was either just ahead of or hours behind the press in putting Paul Ryan on display â€“ beating the newshounds was never the goal. Gathering the information of a wired-in public, and closing that digital gap, was the objective.
Herman calls it a great idea.
“I trust they have already thought of ways to leverage, not just the data they gained but, hopefully, to make that app useful as the campaign rolls on.”
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