The Straits Times
www.straitstimes.com
Published on Oct 05, 2012
 

Social media wins big in White House race

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on July 23, 2012.

 
 

WASHINGTON - Media mogul Rupert Murdoch controls some of the world's most influential news outlets. Yet when he felt Republican candidate Mitt Romney needed a better campaign team to win the US presidency, he took to Twitter to make the point.

And even though President Barack Obama did not show up in Wisconsin to back the local Democratic candidate for governor last month, he tweeted his support from Washington.

Mr Romney's wife, Ann, meanwhile, is helping to make over her husband's wooden public image one candid family snapshot at a time, posted to online pinboard, Pinterest.

These are just some recent examples of how presidential campaigns and elite pundits are harnessing social media in creative and unexpected ways to shape voter perceptions.

With about four months to election day, candidates are not just shaking hands and carrying babies on the campaign trail or airing slick 30-second television advertisements.

To a far greater degree than in any previous election, campaign 2012 is also being defined by the battle for Facebook 'likes', Twitter followers and who can make the spiffiest Web videos.

Neither camp is claiming that social media, mobile and other digital tools alone will win them the election. But both are pushing the boundaries with inventive use of social media technology to the extent that pundits are billing it the 'social media elections'.

Social, mobile and other digital media have become 'one of the most significant game-changers ever seen in influencing the political landscape', Internet marketing research firm comScore wrote in a recent study.

'In particular, social media has emerged in recent election cycles not only as a means of facilitating the spread and amplification of issues important to people on both sides of the political divide, but also as a way to increase the velocity with which they get noticed,' the study said.

Analysts note that with every presidential cycle, there is a leap forward in technology, with correspondingly higher levels of campaign-related Internet activity.

This trend is not surprising, given that almost 80 per cent, or about 245 million Americans, are Internet users. According to a Pew Research Centre survey in March, 66 per cent of US netizens use social networking sites. Of this, three-quarters say their friends post politics-related content, while about one-third have themselves occasionally posted political material.

And social media is not just the domain of the young. About 35 per cent of Americans aged 65 or older use social networking sites, according to Pew, which has tracked such data since 2000.

The most influential social media tools used in this election cycle include the video-sharing website YouTube, online social network Facebook and Twitter, where users share thoughts in tweets of 140 characters or less.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have established expert teams to help them exert a robust presence on these platforms, using them to post videos, send messages to supporters, host online discussions and trade barbs.

Mr Obama's 2008 campaign broke new ground and dominated the use of online social networking to mobilise voters and raise money.

That election marked the first time that the Internet and social networks became a central part of the campaign communications story, said Mr Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Centre's Internet and American Life Project which tracks such data.

This year, Team Obama is taking its online strategy to a higher level of sophistication with the roll out of 'Dashboard' in May. The new, highly interactive campaign organising tool is designed as a blueprint for volunteers to link up with each other and the campaign from their homes online as well as out in the field.

Dashboard should be thought of as an 'online nationwide field office', Mr Obama's field director Jeremy Bird said in a video announcing the platform.

Those who want to help the Obama campaign can sign up to Dashboard and input their postal code, and the system connects them with other local volunteers. They are also offered a range of volunteer opportunities, from making calls to potential voters to going door to door.

Slower to harness the power of the Web in 2008, Republicans have now jumped on the bandwagon.

Today, there is renewed interest and intensity from both campaigns in using new technologies to 'try to understand voters, try to appeal to voters, try to get people to talk to their friends about the campaigns', Mr Rainie said at a recent talk.

Although he trails Mr Obama's 27.4 million Facebook fans and 17.7 million Twitter followers, Mr Romney early on signalled his intention to close the digital gap when he announced his White House ambitions in April in a YouTube video posted on Twitter.

Today, he has more than 2.6 million Facebook likes and about 790,000 followers on Twitter. His campaign has also rolled out its answer to Mr Obama's Dashboard, a Facebook application called the Social Victory Centre, which allows users to engage in campaign activities.

Their wives are also getting into the act.

Mrs Michelle Obama has almost eight million Facebook likes, about 1.1 million Twitter followers and her own Pinterest board. Mrs Romney offers frequent updates of family activities and photos to her 256,000 Facebook and 52,000 Twitter fans.

Facebook and Twitter have become an extension of campaign techniques used increasingly in recent years as computer technologies and the Internet grew more pervasive, notes Dr Charles Stevenson, who teaches US politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

'Political campaigns at all levels have sought to identify their likely voters and approach them directly, using available techniques and technologies,' he said.

In the presidential and congressional campaigns since 2000, this was called micro-targeting. Using various lists such as certain magazine subscriptions or records of purchase of particular items, campaigns sent narrowly focused mailings to people deemed likely supporters, Dr Stevenson said.

The question is, will all this online effort translate into votes for Mr Obama again? Or will it be a game changer for Mr Romney?

Research has shown that campaigns' Internet and social media strategies 'are very tightly integrated with all of the other communications strategies', said Mr Rainie.

'So it's very hard from a research perspective to isolate one of those channels.'

One thing the data does show, however, is that the Internet and social media is particularly good for the party out of power.

'It's an extra channel that they can use to complain, to try to rally the people that support their point of view,' said Mr Rainie.

tracyq@sph.com.sg