I followed Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Twitter for about a day and a half. I unfollowed them because I didn’t really like listening to what they had to say and I definitely didin’t need it constantly pumped into my timeline. I did gather a few things from following them however. First, the people running Obama’s Twitter were far more prolific than those taking care of Romney’s. Obama out-tweeted Romney by about 8-1. His tweets were generally more conversational and Romney’s alway sounded kind of stale and scripted. I say that’s the way they sounded because Romney promptly quit tweeting after he lost the election. From the beginning Obama has shown a greater mastery of new technology and its potential applications in his campaign and consistently used this knowledge to his advantage over Romney.
It goes beyond Twitter. A few day’s after the election, my younger sister, an avid Internet user, told me to go to Mitt Romney’s Facebook page and refresh it a few times for a laugh. Sure enough, each time the page loaded the number of likes on his page had dropped. A visit to Obama’s page showed his likes increasing. While this was funny, it raised a few questions. In a society where digital and social media plays an increasing role, it’s dangerous to discount the credibility of Facebook likes and Twitter followers. As I watched Romney’s likes fall, I wondered what it was about Obama’s strategy that made him more successful online and how that contributed to the overall success of his campaign.
One thing Obama had in his favor is that he was definitely an early adopter. Obama was making successful use of Twitter in 2008, before social media use had really caught on in the political arena. During this campaign, he built on that momentum and really built a presence for himself online- live tweeting events, updating on Facebook and even having a question and answer session on Reddit that crashed the site. People felt like they could interact with the president, or at least his campaign, in a social way, allowing them to feel a personal, albeit virtual connection with him. As Romney was increasingly characterized as cold and robotic, the president’s presence in social media made him that much more approachable and likable. Obama showed a clear edge over Romney is all social media aspects, and proceeded to use it to his benefit throughout the campaign.
Aside from the candidates’ use of social media, channels like Facebook and Twitter made it possible for constituents to weigh in on issues more than ever before. Twitter played an especially crucial role in debate discussions. Rather than having to wait until the next day to discuss the debates with colleagues, people were able to discuss them in real time with people from all over the country via tweets. Rather than receiving and parroting commentary from pundits on cable news, people were able to create their own, and the Internet definitely felt the effects. In the particular arena of women’s issues, this was especially clear. After the first debate, where their issues went unmentioned, women took to social media to express their annoyance (and also their funny commentary). Their complaints were definitely answered in the second debate, which focused heavily on women’s issues and sparked a social media blitz.
During the debate, Americans were able to critique the candidates’ positions on women’s issues as they answered questions. The slightest wayward comment was punished immediately. Women’s issues were the highest trending topic on Twitter at this time, mentioned over 24,000 times per minute at its peak. Everyone on Twitter, and other social media by extension, appeared to be watching the debate. When Romney made the now infamous ‘binders full of women’ gaffe, the backlash was instantaneous. The comment was perhaps not as eloquent or well thought out as it should have been, but what would have been largely forgotten in debates past sparked a digital firestorm that spanned the entire Internet. With constant access to the Internet, there is no lag time between hearing a tactless comment and unleashing a bitter tirade through numerous feeds. A sort of hive mentality took over those participating via social media and within minutes, and to a prolific extent over the following days, memes were created, tweets fired off, Facebook pages made, and blogs written all about Romney’s inability to understand or connect with women.
A unique quality about social media is that, when manipulated correctly, it will appear not to have been manipulated at all. Obama barely mentioned the binders comment after the debate- he could sit back and let the Internet community tear down Romney for his fifties era ideals and appear to be focusing on the more presidential aspects of the campaign. Romney definitely put his foot in it, but Obama had already curried favor with the Internet community, a community just looking for a reason to malign his opponent.
It is crucial for political candidates to acknowledge and understand the very real potential social media holds for both good and bad during a campaign. A Facebook page mocking the binders comment may seem to have been designed merely to mock or insult, but Romney should have been careful not to underestimate the threat it posed. With literally hundreds of thousands of followers, flocking to the page in little more than twenty four hours after the comment was made, this fan page was reaching a lot of people. But it is important to remember that its reach didn’t stop with just the fans. Their followers saw that they followed it or reposted its content and were thereby exposed to a negative view of Romney. Curious followers may have checked it out and been swayed, following it themselves. Then all of their followers saw it, and the digital trickle down continued. Consider that this was only one such Facebook page, and that there were numerous Twitter accounts and other social media and Internet memes cultivating their own followers and you have a very significant number of people exposed to this negative image of Romney. And the Democrats didn’t even have to lift a finger.
A study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that only fourteen percent of Obama’s social media posts focused on Romney, while an entire third of Romney’s attacked Obama in some way. Obama didn’t need to break down Romney through his social media outlets; legions of digitally active supporters were there to do it for him. All Obama had to do was foster the Internet’s good will, and that he did. Obama’s social media content focuses largely on communicating his message directly to voters, rather than approaching them through the tired old ads that they’re used to. While many voters are jaded and distrustful when it comes to campaign ads, Facebook and Twitter are relatively novel, allowing followers to feel almost a personal connection with a candidate. After all, a television ad can’t follow a person back or retweet their content, but social media allows an interactive experience with the a candidate, and that experience allows people to feel as though they are actively involved in the campaign, rather than a gallup statistic.
What’s lost in the digital shuffle is that followers on Twitter or likes on Facebook translate to living, breathing, voting people. It is becoming increasingly important for candidates to treat the digital community with as much importance as they do primary voters in Ohio or retirees in Florida. More and more people are choosing to bypass traditional media outlets in favor of the Internet, and candidates must recognize this. In the 2012 election, Romney’s campaign used a very perfunctory approach to social media. It never felt like they really embraced it or considered it an important component to the campaign. Throughout its entirety, Romney’s attitude toward social media use seemed to be a range from your dad trying (and failing) to be hip and your granddad grudgingly forcing himself to get on the computer. On the other hand, Obama seemed at home on the Internet, something an important core group of voters, namely young people, appreciate. In 2008, young voters were a crucial part of Obama’s base, and he reached out to them through the channels they helped pioneer. In 2012 the same approach proved successful again. Obama seemed like a real person, whose mastery of social media signified an ability to cope with the changing times, while Romney’s reticence made him seem stuffy, old, and all too ready to shoo you off his lawn.
Obama clearly proved to be more proficient in his manipulation of all types of media, and that contributed significantly to his defeat of Romney. Each campaign decision was carefully calculated in order to earn him the maximum number of votes, and that is quite obvious in his well planned approach to social media. Obama outpaced Romney on numerous fronts when it came to using the Internet to reach voters. Obama’s website allowed people to join specific constituency groups to receive specialized content while Romney’s did not. Obama retweeted his followers, allowing them to feel included in the process, while Romney only retweeted one person during the time of the previously mentioned survey, and that person was his son. Obama embraced social media, posting four times as much contend and using twice as many platforms while Romney appeared to be trying to get by with doing as little with social media as possible. In the end, Obama won the internet while Romney was sidelined by his own hesitance.