Votes vs Fans: Will social media decide the US presidential election?
Today's blog post is written by our social media intern, Kyle Hynes.
Throughout one of the most closely fought US Presidential elections in history, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have jostled to win over hearts and minds in one of the modernistic political battlegrounds: the world of social media. Debate about whether social media will have a serious impact on the election has raged alongside both candidates’ extensive interaction with their huge online followings. It certainly appears that they view the exposure these platforms can give their campaigns as a vital component to their success or failure.
The requirement to embrace and utilise the freshest media platforms is not a new trend in US Presidential elections. Many point to John F. Kennedy’s relaxed, charismatic performance in the first ever television debate against an ill-prepared, sickly Richard Nixon in the 1960 election as a vital sway factor in his victory – JFK was elected with a winning margin of just 0.16% of the popular vote. In a Presidential race that in all likelihood will be won by the smallest of margins, the question is, how much of an impact will the latest media platform, social media, have on the outcome of the 2012 election?
The ‘first’ social media election
The commitment from both candidates to a strong online presence during this election came as a direct result of Obama’s innovative social media campaign in 2008. Obama and his team utilised and targeted online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook extremely effectively, garnering interest, attracting voters and gaining donations.
Obama raised over double his opponent John McCain, with the difference mainly coming through small online contributions of $1000 or less. As well as generating campaign funds, Obama was also highly successful with generating online views of his campaign videos – his campaign promos were viewed by 50 million at the end of his campaign.
Obama’s campaign also naturally attracted social media users. As the Infographic on the right illustrates, these users are politically more active and also more likely to influence undecided voters. The importance of Obama’s online campaign in generating support and funds cannot be overstated in the views of many political observers, with Arianna Huffington, president and editor in chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, asserting that ‘were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not be president’.
Who is winning the 2012 online race?
As a reaction to Obama’s success in 2008, the Republicans have galvanised their efforts in an attempt to rival their Democrat adversaries, with the party and Romney’s presence online far more extensive and visible than McCain’s ever was. Obama has certainly kept his commitment to social media by remaining extremely active on established social media outlets, as well as embracing all other forms, including Google+ (as has Romney) and, perhaps more daringly, Reddit, an online social platform that encourages users to ‘Ask Me Anything’.
The two candidates, although generally using the same online platforms and tools, tend to employ different strategies. For example, on Twitter, Romney comments almost exclusively in the first person in an attempt to appear more personable than Obama, often directly tweeting the President’s account about his views on Obama’s policies and what he would do differently if elected. In contrast, Obama’s account is more obviously handled by a second party by referring to Obama as ‘President Obama’, never tweeting Romney directly, preferring to criticise Romney’s decisions by creating hashtags such as #Romnesia. In an interesting article on Digital Royalty, the two candidate's different approaches to social media are analysed, particularly their differing use of Instagram on Facebook and Twitter. Obama’s photographs tend to focus more on the voters and his campaign, whereas Romney has more of his own family, reinforcing his ‘personable’ touch as stated before.
However, the nature of social media does come with its pitfalls. Any small mistake, misplaced word or phrase can be seized upon and spread like wildfire amongst the online community, often with very damaging but nevertheless hilarious consequences. When Romney stated that ‘I went to a number of women's groups and they brought us back full binders full of women’ in the second Presidential television debate, the online community erupted. A new tumblr page was created with many very funny memes to view, as well as Amazon’s customer reviews of binders greatly increasing. This was coupled with Romney’s ‘Google bombing’ of himself and Obama’s ‘horses and bayonets’ retort to Romney’s criticism that America has less ships now than it did in 1916. The tweet #horsesandbayonets trended worldwide on Twitter, with fifty new pages on Facebook dedicated to the topic. Indeed, such is the Obama camps sharpness towards social media, when Clint Eastwood accused Obama of being an ‘empty seat’ in the white house (and @InvisibleObama began trending) their response was to tweet directly to Eastwood with a picture of Obama in a chair marked ‘President of the United States’ and a comment that ‘this seat’s taken’.
Is social media an effective tool to measure the outcome of the election?
There are many different views on whether or not popularity in social media necessarily correlates to political success or failure. As the infographic shows, in 2010 there were three gubernatorial races: all won by candidates with more Twitter followers. Similarly, in 2011 all mayoral and gubernatorial candidates defeated their opponents with less Facebook fans.
However, others are not so sure about whether social media can predict elections. Many have observed that social media, in particular Twitter, is distortedly liberal. A recent report by Pew suggests that a Democrat follower is much more likely to hit a ‘like’ button than a Republican on Facebook. Social media users are more likely to be younger, liberal and attracted to Obama’s campaign, while conservative, Republican followers are less likely to be engaged in as much social media activity. As Christina Sirabian comments, if the election were to be held across the major social networks, Obama would win in a landslide, whereas in the reality of recent polls the race is extremely close.
Perhaps social media cannot indisputably predict the outcome of the Presidential election. However its importance should not be overlooked. It has now become a vital component of an election campaign and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Elections that are won by the smallest fractions can be swayed by the tiniest of margins, and with the ability of social media to influence undecided voters, both candidates will retain their immense presence on these platforms until the last vote is counted.
JFK vs Nixon in the first televised debate.
Political fundraising in the social media era (by MDGadvertising)
"Binder full of women"