High-tech, old-school politics won

Tom Norton of Mount Laurel, appropriately clad in an Eagles jersey, looks at Facebook on his iPad at U.S. Rep Jon Runyan's victory party on election night.
Tom Norton of Mount Laurel, appropriately clad in an Eagles jersey, looks at Facebook on his iPad at U.S. Rep Jon Runyan's victory party on election night. (DAVID M WARREN /Staff Photographer)

Team Obama mined valuable data but also went door to door.

Posted: November 12, 2012

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

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, leaving the Romney camp beaten, amazed, and dismayed.

Recall the dizzying 2008 debut of the Obama social media machine. 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 effect: Web networks, organizing people who worked phones, went door to door, person to person, 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 Obama-style social media network, stoking the 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 had refitted the 2008 machine. Two words: Big Data. The Obama network now had a database of more than 13 million people connected by Web paths easy to trace to family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and neighbors. The network noted what all these points of contact 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. Kenneth Wisnefski, CEO of Webimax, a social media consulting firm in Mount 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, a dominance that "helped shape voters' perception."

Common wisdom held that Obama could not repeat his 2008 performance. But as Election Day unfolded, voter turnout in swing 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: "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 three 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 five million with voters under 30. That tallies closely with age groups and their use of social media. "If young voters had stayed home, Romney would have taken a lot of key battleground states," Rousseau said. "Social media had a huge influence on these young voters heading to the polls."

Twitter went nuts on Election Day and night, with more than 31 million tweets 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 shows heavy tweeting on the East Coast and in Ohio urban areas. Tweeters tended to be Democrats; Republican tweeters were strongest in Utah, Texas, and Arizona.

In all, Team Romney did well, trimming Obama's massive 9.6 million-vote 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. An article in the New York Times on Wednesday reported: "The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney's aides . . . as they saw voters they never even knew existed."

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

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. Yet - and here's the difference, as of 2008, 2012, and forever after - even had they existed, no one before 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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