Obama, Romney camps ready for digital warfare

Posted: April 15, 2012

Now that Rick Santorum has suspended his campaign and the race is on between President Obama and Mitt Romney, an unprecedented media war has begun.

We've seen big media battles before. But in money, in woman- and man-hours, and in technical and strategic sophistication, this will be the biggest ever. Especially in Pennsylvania and other swing states, you'll see television ads from both camps, and from the semianonymous political action committees that have become the coin of the 2012 realm.

But that's just the visible war.

Underneath and at the edges, simmering around and through that loud clash of money and images, the digital campaigns will lock horns.

They'll come to you in e-mails, text messages, classic mail . . . and in real live human beings knocking on your door.

In a close election, as this promises to be, digital could be decisive. Just ask Ann Romney. Better yet, tweet her: @AnnDRomney. (More on that later.)

Or ask Andrew Rasiej, social-media campaign strategist, founder of Personal Democracy Media, cofounder of TechPresident. He says 2008 was "the beginning of social media on the political scene. But as of 2012, the digital campaign is on steroids."

Rasiej and five other experts will discuss "Social Media: The New Political Background" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the National Constitution Center. The talk couldn't be more timely.

In four years, much has changed. Don't say new media; it's so 2008. Say digital . Both campaigns have digital directors. Obama's is Teddy Goff, associate vice president for the digital-strategy company Blue State Digital. Romney's is Zac Moffatt, cofounder of the Virginia strategy company Targeted Victory.

On paper, at least, digital Obama seems to have a massive advantage. Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political science professor at La Salle University and a 2008 Obama delegate, says the president's campaign "is way ahead in the digital game." His Twitter address (run by his campaign team) has more than 14 million followers; Romney's has about 424,000. Obama enjoys 25 million "likes" on Facebook; on his Timeline, if you click Born, an image of a BarackObama.com pops up - stamped with an image of his Hawaii birth certificate.

The world knows what digital wrought for Obama in 2008. More than 35,000 local support groups sprang up through the website My Barack Obama. (Joe Rospars, digital-strategy director, Obama campaign: "For us, social media are about community organizing.")

YouTube was home to several Obama channels, attracting millions of viewers with slick, quickly made campaign videos. (John McCain's campaign started out far behind but redressed much of the gap during the summer of 2008, especially via YouTube.) The Obama digital team created an e-mail list 13.5 million strong. These strategies attracted many people previously uninvolved in politics. Half a billion dollars were raised online from three million donors, with most donations under $100.

(A less-told part of the 2008 story: Much of it was just plain folks. Of 1.5 billion views of online videos during that campaign, 90 percent were of vids made by individuals, re-posting a TV clip or posting their own, of McCain or Obama on the stump.)

"I don't think digital won the election in 2008," says Rasiej, "but it was important, and it woke people up."

There are opportunities here for Romney. Yes, Team Obama has been hiring digital geniuses since last summer and has a sturdy 50-state strategy in place. But Romney & Co. have already shown considerable savvy.

As Balchunis says, the former Massachusetts governor "appeals to voters who are usually older." Maybe that once meant non-tech-savvy voters. But a recent Pew study shows seniors are using social media to become expert networkers. ("My 85-year-old dad uses social media all the time," says Rasiej.)

While Romney's Twitter following is smaller than Obama's, it appears to "retweet" (pass along) tweets from the campaign at a much higher rate than Obama followers do. Retweeting a message "expands its social reach and is in itself a personalized endorsement," says Todd Bailey, vice president of marketing and digital strategy at WebiMax in Mount Laurel. Each retweet creates a network, and it's one measure of zeal and commitment.

A Twitter star is born. Ann Romney has a page on Pinterest, the booming social site that's a virtual pinup board of family snaps and personal interests. Marketers estimate 90 percent of Pinterest users are women, and Ann Romney is already using her site to display a kind, gentle husband, the Mitt who reads to his grandkids - useful for a candidate whose poll numbers have lagged among women. (The Obama campaign scurried to Pinterest only two weeks ago.)

Twitter, and its power to set instant global wildfires, is front and center. Maria Cardona, principal at Dewey Square Group and on Thursday's panel at the Constitution Center, says: "What's different about 2012 is the absolute instantaneous nature in which information travels, and in which a story can become a story for either side. Thank Twitter."

Again, this show's newest star is Ann Romney.

On Wednesday she joined Twitter to object to liberal consultant Hilary Rosen's remark, on CNN, that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." Twitter exploded. Ann Romney shot near the top of national "trending topics."

"Twitter's a double-edged sword," says Cardona. "This has worked well for Romney, and the White House felt it had to respond, and that hasn't worked as well."

Cardona remembers working at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the 2000 Elian González affair. "I used to tell the press guys there'd be no more news until morning!" she says, laughing. "That's gone. Now there's no letup whatever at any time."

It's all about you. "As the campaign progresses," Bailey says, "both candidates will do the same three things: Share their ideas and accomplishments; engage followers and get their ideas and questions; and then, the real end-goal, turn them into volunteers and advocates."

That brings us to the deep, purple heart of this fight. Voters in Pennsylvania and other swing states will be especially courted via today's digital: a gigantic mashup of info, a data-mining frenzy that can profile each person, door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood, day to day.

"The big story of 2012 is going to be Big Data," says Rasiej. Data, for example, on what party you've registered with, worked for, or donated to. Your tweets and Facebook posts (and those of millions of others) are combed for key words to signal your interest and concerns, which in turn get used in political pitches. (Don't get upset. It's done.)

"That gets mashed with other publicly available databases about where you live, your income, your job, other changes in your life," says Rasiej. And then it's mashed again - "just like any Fortune 500 company does" - with your Web behavior, every click of which is for sale.

(Nor is this "government surveillance." These are techniques pioneered in the private sector, being used by the rich, powerful private clubs known as political parties.)

The result: an incredibly sophisticated way to customize, personalize, and target the pitch to you. They'll know you, quite well, even before they ring the bell. Call it micro-targeting.

"I know we were micro-targeted in 2008," says Balchunis. "And it's already started: You can hardly get near either campaign's website without registering."

The campaigns will tailor their pitches by state, of course. But the aim will get astonishingly precise: messages tailored by neighborhood, then by address; spoken in one way to the union teacher at 6 Elm St., in another to the small-business owner next door at 8 Elm.

Crucially, the script can adapt each week, each day. "You'll have a different message in early October than in late October, and it could change day to day, as the debate and the news and the flow change," Rasiej says.

"It's all instantaneous," says Bailey. "Campaigns can turn on a dime, change directions, like that."

Massive movements, faster than thoughts, intimately informed about you. Welcome to the future that is the present.

Like many, many political junkies, Cardona ruefully admits it: "The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is check my Twitter feed. It's like a Cliff Notes to what's inside people's brains."

In other words, pure political gold.

Contact John Timpane

at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @jtimpane.

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