Obama Winning Social Media, If #Hashtagwars Really Matter

In the battle to win every undecided voter, drive enthusiasm and boost turnout, a new front has opened in the 2012 election: the #hashtagwar.

Within 24 hours of President Barack Obama dubbing Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s policy shifts as “Romnesia,” #Romnesia was trending worldwide on Twitter. Within 48 hours, two Romnesia postings on Obama’s Facebook page were “liked” by 364,963 people and shared nearly 57,696 times. On Tumblr, a series of animated pictures -- or GIFs -- with speech excerpts was liked or re-posted 16,861 times.

Four years ago, when Facebook was one-tenth its size today and before smart phones were the norm, Obama pioneered the use of social media in presidential politics. Today, with the Internet an integral part of people’s lives, Obama’s campaign again has the upper hand, leveraging its ability to communicate with masses on different platforms in ways that weren’t possible in 2008. Yet 2012 may present the first test of whether it makes a difference.

“Obama is operating at a different order of magnitude than Romney just in terms of raw numbers,” said Nicco Mele, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who studies the integration of social media and politics. “We’re effectively in the dark ages of this. The eco-system is just so different and so new. It’s really hard to figure out what is actually going to matter.”

True Test

Ultimately, who wins the election will become the true metric for judging whether Obama’s 31.1 million Facebook page “likes” versus Romney’s 10.2 million matters. Surveys show that voters expect candidates to have a social media presence. Obama’s campaign uses online activity to boost fundraising efforts, recruit volunteers and look for indications of whether they’ve been successful at voter persuasion.

They can monitor online conversations, gather intelligence about what messages are resonating and why. It’s a multi-pronged strategy, with different sites targeted to different demographics and serving varying roles.

Twitter, for example, reaches the political community more than it does undecided voters, a campaign official said. It shapes perceptions, day-to-day coverage and accelerates news cycles in a way that campaign officials said was exemplified during the first presidential debate in Denver. The Obama team lost the Twitter war then because within 30 minutes, the narrative that the president lost had already been set, an official said.

Twitter Fight

The Obama campaign made an effort not to cede Twitter ground in the remaining debates. During last week’s rematch between the president and Romney at Hofstra University in New York, 7.2 million posted Twitter messages referenced the debate, the candidates and related terms. The president’s account, @BarackObama, sent out 37 messages during the 90-minute debate, which were then re-tweeted 117,374 times. Romney’s handle, @MittRomney, sent two Twitter messages which were then re-tweeted 6,810 times.

When Romney said in the debate that he ordered up “binders full of women” to bring gender diversity to his Massachusetts cabinet, it sparked ridicule that ballooned on the web. A hashtag began trending nationally on Twitter, a Facebook page popped up and a steady flow of memes, Internet photos with superimposed logos, was soon coursing through the virtual world.

“People are swimming in a sea of political information and political chatter,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “The system has expanded because social media is now a very central part of campaign messaging and the way that people are talking about the election.”

‘Vanity’ Metrics

Romney campaign officials say their adversaries are relying on a set of “vanity” metrics and that the barrage of Facebook posts, Twitter messages and re-tweets end up more like spam. While Obama may have more Facebook likes, Romney is on par in terms of the percentage of his supporters who are engaged, they said. Last night, for example, both the candidates’ Facebook pages had 2.9 million people talking about them.

In the campaign’s final weeks, Romney’s social media operation has mobilized volunteers through online communities and driven voter turnout efforts, surpassing the metrics for the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Volunteers and aides have made 3.5 times as many phone calls and knocked on nearly four times as many doors than at this point four years ago, according to Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director.

“The goal of our digital team is to be the best team that complements the objectives of the campaign, not to be viewed as the smartest digital entity in the country,” said Moffatt.

Social Networking Reach

According to Pew, 36 percent of social networking site users say the online communications are “very important” or “somewhat” important to them in keeping up with political news. Roughly 60 percent of American adults use such sites as Facebook or Twitter and 66 percent of those users -- or 39 percent of all American adults -- have done at least one civic or political activity with social media, according to a Pew survey. Thirty-eight percent have used social media to “like” or promote material related to political or social issues that others have posted.

Obama campaign officials said friend-to-friend validation and contact is more important than whether #bindersfullofwomen is trending. For that, Facebook provides the most mileage in terms of outreach and targeting persuadable voters. When friends of friends are factored into Obama’s 31 million Facebook followers, through sharing, they can distribute without cost content that potentially reaches almost everyone in the U.S.

Extending Grassroots

“Social media is a natural extension of our massive grassroots organization and a variety of platforms offer unique opportunities to inform voters, mobilize supporters and get more people involved more deeply in this historic election,” said Adam Fetcher, a campaign spokesman.

The campaign also uses Facebook as a cheap way to quickly communicate and organize supporters, an official said. They cited women’s outreach as especially effective through Facebook. The “Women for Obama” page has 1.16 million fans compared with the 92,250 for “Moms for Mitt.”

Use of social media also provides multiple opportunities to raise money.

Through August, the Obama campaign had raised $147 million from donors who had given him a cumulative total of $200 or less, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington-based group that analyzing political donations.

Small Donors

That was 34 percent of his total receipts from individuals over the course of the campaign. The numbers for Obama far exceeded Romney’s $39.5 million from small donors, which amount to 18 percent of his total, the center found.

“Social media is very good at talking to people who agree with you and convincing them to take more actions but it’s really not clear if it’s good at changing someone’s mind,” said Mele, who directed Internet operations for Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential primary campaign. “A lot of the activity online is preaching to the choir in order to significantly boost online fundraising.”

To be sure, social media plays to Obama’s demographic strengths with younger voters participating more, particularly on sites like Tumblr.

Also, “most voters aren’t living their lives waiting for what’s the new meme that’s going to help them decide their vote,” said Rainie.

Romney and his advisers argue Obama’s campaign is overly taken with petty catch-phrases and Internet fads at a time when voters are preoccupied with much larger issues. At an Oct. 19 rally in Daytona Beach, Florida, Romney accused Obama of running an “incredible shrinking campaign” based on “silly word games,” saying he had no agenda for the future.

“This is a big country with big opportunities and big challenges,” Romney said. “And they keep talking about smaller and smaller things.”