2 Nov 2012

Will social media win the US presidential election?

Twitter followers, Facebook “likes”, even playlists on Spotify with artists from Booker T. and The MG’s to The Killers. But will the social media buzz mean votes for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney?

Can social media win the US presidential election? (Reuters)

When Barack Obama won the 2008 US election, he tweeted: “We just made history… All of this happened because of you.”

It was one of the moments which led pundits to compare him to John F. Kennedy in the way both embraced the new technologies of their respective eras to get them to the White House. If JFK was the first ever television president, they said, then Obama was the first Twitter president.

Four years later, and Obama’s hoping to do it all over again. But with the presidential election days away, is the “Twitter president” still winning the social media race against his Republican rival, Mitt Romney? And do tweets – plus Facebook likes, Tumblr followers, and all the rest – really translate into votes?

The 2012 election

If you look at the social media numbers alone, Barack Obama has already won this contest. On many social media platforms, his followers outnumber Romney’s by a factor of ten or even more.

On Twitter, Obama has 21.5m followers; Romney has 1.6m. On Facebook, Obama has 31.6m likes; Romney has just 11.6m. The list goes on – Obama’s YouTube channel has 254,000 subscribers, Romney, just 27,000; Obama’s Instagram feed has 1.5m followers, whereas Romney’s has only 68,000.

Social media is like breakfast. You want to have it – it’s a really important meal – but it’s not the only meal. American University’s Scott Talan

This doesn’t even take into account newer platforms like Pinterest, Storify and Tumblr – but the pattern is clear by now: if volume is what you’re after, Obama’s your man.

Alex Truby, consultant at one of the UK’s top social media agencies, FreshNetworks, told Channel 4 News: “I definitely think Obama is winning the war. Obviously in terms of reach – the numbers following him – he has a distinct advantage because he has been on these networks for four more years, so he already has the audience there.

“But what we can see, looking at different channels, is that numbers are one thing but what matters is engagement levels, and Obama is managing to engage people better than Romney everywhere we look.”

The numbers game

In fact, despite numbers, many US commentators believe that the candidates are having roughly similar levels of success on social media. In many ways, this is a more impressive feat for the Romney campaign, which came from a much lower base with a much smaller team working on this area.

Scott Talan is professor of public communication at the American University in Washington and former mayor. He said the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“I think when you look at social media in totality, it is pretty darn even,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Sheer numbers can be misleading – for example, in real life, if someone hosts a party with 1,000 people there, you could say they were popular. Maybe, maybe not – maybe people went because of the gifts, or the dinner. You need to look at how long someone spent looking at the video, how often the tweets were re-tweeted – for the party example, if there were only 10 people there but they were very influential, or they really liked the person,” he said.

Social media is just for breakfast - the other meals matter, say pundits (Reuters)

He also believes the fact that Obama got there first in social media is largely irrelevant.

“It’s fair to say Obama was the first successful social media presidential candidate, and president… But just because you are first, or early, doesn’t mean you will succeed. Just look at Myspace. Just because you are first doesn’t mean you are good at it,” he said.

An example which supports the argument that it’s a closer race than it seems online is Facebook. While Obama has more followers, actually, more people are talking about Mitt Romney – 2.7m to Obama’s 2.4m.

Do tweets mean votes?

But the real problem with social media remains that no-one knows, yet, whether it works to get people to the polls. Just because you tweet about something, or “like” it on Facebook, are you going to vote for the person who posted it?

A number of social media agencies are monitoring this election to find out, including Vocus in the United States.

Vocus’s PR director Frank Strong said that their analysis recently showed Romney on top in social media. But he added: “Can it predict the election? That remains to be seen. I’d caution however, it’s more like the world’s largest focus group than a statistically significant survey.”

Can it predict the election? That remains to be seen. Frank Strong, Vocus

Additionally, it’s worth remembering that not everyone is on social media. Recent research from the Pew Research Center points out that, while the number of Americans who regularly go to social media networks to find out their news has doubled since January, it is still only a regular news source for a relatively small number of people: just 17 per cent of the population.

As Talan puts it: “It’s like breakfast. You want to have it – it’s a really important meal – but it’s not the only meal.”

Follow the Channel 4 News US election Twitter list 

Not the only meal

Moreover, by its very nature, social media isn’t just about what the candidates themselves do – it’s about what the rest of the world does.

Colin Delany of online political advocacy firm e.politics in the US believes this is key.

“A great example was Romney’s binders full of women [after the debates]. I have a funny feeling that in a pre-internet age, when the same handful of guys were sitting around the table on TV, that wouldn’t have got nearly as much attention,” he told Channel 4 News.

There are other moments in this campaign which “took off” on social media, from Clint Eastwood’s speech to an empty chair or “invisible Obama” at the Republican National Convention to #SaveBigBird, in response to Romney’s admission he would cut PBS funding.

“More important than what candidates do is what supporters do on their behalf,” said Delany.

The real online battleground

In fact, Delany believes the focus on social media is misleading.

“Social media gets a lot of attention because it is what you can see from the outside, but it is absolutely not the most important part of the online political campaign. Using the internet through a wide variety of means to get people to act in the real world, that’s important,” he said.

He also pointed out that Obama’s grassroots campaign to get funding online remained a very successful part of this strategy, alongside other strategies such as targeted online advertising and micro-targeting – for example, knowing that if someone has opened emails on a topic in the past, they are likely to consider attending a fundraiser on this issue.

“These are the sorts of things that real online political professionals pay attention to,” he said.

“Talking about the Facebook election or the Twitter president – to me that’s an utterly meaningless statement. When Obama’s people talk, they talk of having 13m people on their email list. The technology is far less important than what you’re asking people to do – vote themselves, and get other people to vote.”

The future

One of the social media platforms which seems – at least on first inspection – to have moved away from, as Delany puts it, “getting people to vote” almost entirely is the music service Spotify, where both candidates have shared playlists.

While Obama is a fan of Booker T. and The MG’s, Arcade Fire and even Jennifer Lopez, Mitt Romney favours The Killers and Johnny Cash. His campaign team are probably hoping the playlist itself isn’t a reliable election forecaster, beginning as it does with I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow by The Soggy Bottom Boys.

But American University’s Talan believes these new methods of engaging with voters should not be overlooked.

“People are not logical. They are not Spock from Star Trek. What music does and why it is powerful, why it is played at old-school political rallies, is that it is emotional. So if the candidate can connect to the voter emotionally, via Spotify, that’s priceless. It’s political gold – and we’ll see more of this ahead,” he said.