Social media pivotal in election

Posted: November 10, 2012

The swirl of post-election analysis has begun to settle, and it's clear: Social media were pivotal in the presidential election of 2012.

Never have they played such a broad, deep role. And they're here to stay. The Romney camp did very well, to be sure - but the Obama camp confounded the smart money and largely, if not fully, repeated the social media-based ground game of 2008, to leave the Romney camp beaten, amazed, and dismayed.

Recall the dizzying 2008 debut of the Obama social media machine. If 2004 was the Year of the Blog, (think: Rathergate), 2008 was the Year of YouTube. Team Obama flooded YouTube with videos, posting more than 1,200 by mid-September, reaching millions of viewers. The forces of Sen. John McCain fought valiantly to catch up, and did well, but they lacked the Obama ground game already in place: Web networks, organizing flesh-and-blood people who worked phones, went door-to-door, person-to-person, eye-to-eye, a hybrid of 21st-century marketing techniques, Web-savvy connectivity, and old-school, Chicago-style, street-level politicking.

Smarting from the losses of 2008, GOP workers created their own massive Obama-style social media network, stoking the brilliant success of 2010, in which the party took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Election Day 2012 opened with something fresh on Facebook and Twitter: thousands of people, of all parties, declaring they had voted. Cara Rousseau, social media manager at Duke University, says this was especially effective with young voters: "Users logged on to Facebook Tuesday morning to see an 'I voted' box at the top of their news feed, showing poll locations and geographic and age demographics for their friends who voted." The social media site foursquare "had an 'I voted' badge that users could earn by using #ivoted when they checked in to their polling locations."

Obama's forces also had refitted the machine that hummed so musically in 2008. Two words: Big Data. The Obama network now had a database of more than 13 million people, themselves connected, by Web paths easy to trace, to family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and neighbors. The network noted what all these points of contacts did, what they liked, what TV they watched, what books, papers, and blogs they read. And they created appeals on all those levels, to all those people.

Between 2008 and 2012, Team Obama created the largest, most comprehensive voter database in history. They farmed it tenderly, quietly, effectively. A New York Times article on Wednesday showed how the team gathered names of undecided voters and undeclared voters with promising profiles.

Kenneth Wisnefski, CEO of Webimax, a social media consulting outfit in Mt. Laurel, said by e-mail that the Obama camp "directly engaged with his follower base in aggressively connecting with them during Election Day" Wisnefski noted that on Election Day, Obama had three of the top 10 Twitter trending topics and Romney none, which demonstrates Obama's dominance and itself "helped shape voters' perception as well."

Common wisdom held that Obama could not repeat his 2008 performance. But as Election Day unfolded, voter turnout in important states outdid expectations. It was not quite at 2008 levels, not in Pennsylvania, not in many places, but neverthless strong.

David Schuff, associate professor of management information systems at Temple University's Fox School of Business, said in an e-mail that "social media's big contribution to the 2012 election was mobilization of the base. Obama's huge electoral victory was due in part to his supporters showing up to the polls. It's grass-roots organization but on a massive scale."

Turnout in Philadelphia and environs, for example, easily swamped an anti-Obama groundswell in western Pennsylvania. Similar stories played out in Ohio, Virginia and Florida, where late-reporting urban areas with vigorous turnout undid Romney advantages elsewhere. Obama's 70-plus percent support from Latino voters helped win crucial Colorado and (probably) Florida. In Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, youth voters also helped, even if the numbers did not match the ecstatic explosions of 2008.

As of this writing, Obama enjoys a lead of 3 million in the popular vote. According to pollster Kristen Soltis, Romney outdid Obama by about 1.8 million with voters over 30, but Obama apparently outdid Romney by almost 5 million with voters under 30. That tallies closely with age groups and their use of social media. Rousseau said that "if young voters had stayed home, Romney would have taken a lot of key battleground states. Social media had a huge influence on these young voters heading to the polls."

Mary Ellen Bachunis, professor of political science at La Salle University, said by email that her students were concerned about the frequently misleading and inaccurate nature of the stuff on Twitter, but "The good news is that more people are becoming interested in politics."

Twitter went nuts on Election Day and Night, with more than 31 million tweets total and spikes of more than 327,000 tweets per minute, both torching U.S. records. An analysis of U.S. Twitter activity by Tony Grubesic, Sean Goggins, and associates at the Drexel Informatics Lab reveals heavy tweeting on the East Coast and in Ohio urban areas. Tweeters tended to be Democrats; Republican tweeters were strongest in states such as Utah, Texas, and Arizona.

In all, Team Romney did very well, trimming Obama's massive 9.6-million margin of 2008 by 6.6 million votes or 69 percent. But it wasn't nearly enough, as Romney's forces learned on Election Night. The Times article put it well: "The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney's aides . . . as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla." That I-4 corridor in Florida, once dependably Republican, has changed its makeup with an influx of Latino, female, and younger voters, and it went for Obama this time, as Obama data showed it would.

Big data, courtesy of its godparents, the social media.

Barack Obama is the greatest vote-getter in the history of U.S. politics. His total of 69.45 million in 2008 smashed all previous records, and his current total is 61.17 million. His two-campaign total of 130 million-plus beats the previous record (held by George W. Bush) by 18 million votes.

(Mitt Romney's total, as of this writing, is a creditable 58.163 million. He probably will not equal Sen. John McCain's excellent 2008 total of 59.9 million. Total votership, however, was down this year for both parties.)

Social media helped, of course. But social media did not create those votes. They helped find them. They would not have found them had the votes not been there - credit what the Twitter photo shows, the human elements, the perceived attractiveness of the candidate himself and the voters' preference. Yet - and here's the difference, as of 2008, 2012, and forever forward - even had they existed, no one before Barack Obama ever had such tools to find them.


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

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