President Obama, in terms of public image, is often seen as coming across as quite a light-hearted and ‘jokey’ Commander-in-Chief; this isn’t to his detriment nor is it only a trait of Democratic presidents. Ronald Reagan typically used humour to make light of his political adversaries and to win over audiences across the political spectrum. For Obama, this translates well online and increases the perception of engagement by his campaign with their very active ‘socially networked’ base; Mitt Romney, on the other hand, can often give the appearance of a kindly grandfather trying to ‘send a facebook’ for the very first time. Prime Minister David Cameron has been accused of having a similar online presence by former Labour spin-doctor Lord Mandelson.
An example of Obama’s leading competitive edge online comes from his engagement with Reddit (a social news website with content generated by users and tracked by popularity). Whilst Governor Romney’s campaign was desperately trying to recast their nominee in a new light using a tightly controlled image overhaul (think what Saatchi and Saatchi did for Margaret Thatcher), Obama was doing an AMA [Any Matters Answered - a type of Q&A] session on Reddit, with over 200k users attempting to log-on to ask their own questions and crashing the site at times, and personally answered over 1000 questions on topics from Guantanamo Bay to the White House ‘secret’ beer recipe.
The Pew Research Center ran a Project for Excellence in Journalism earlier this year that found that President Obama had made twice as many blog posts as Governor Romney within a particular given period; there were also three times as many YouTube videos on the Obama campaign channel than that of the Romney campaign. The study also found that those identifying as ‘liberal’ are more likely to say that such sites and methods of engagement are important; this is reflected by the slant of online political chat amongst a younger, more active and politically involved audience.
2012 is predicted to be a close election by some pundits (although I would disagree, see my predictions); if Obama can convert leads in virtual engagement into actual voter turnout then he will have a significant lead against Romney on election day.
Interestingly, in terms of ‘social engagement’, there is little actual connectivity by either candidate with the public through social media; from both campaigns there is a dearth of replies to, comments on, or retweets of public comments. In July, only 3% of President Obama’s Twitter messages were RT’s of comments by citizens; this is better than Romney who RT’d only only comment in that period and that was made by his son Josh. There seems, across Twitter especially but seen in engagement with YouTube and others, to be a top-down ‘command and control’ approach by both Democrats and Republicans alike in getting the message out.
GoogleAnalytics is used to catalogue and reference websites to create a page rank for Google’s search listings; PeopleRank is a tool that uses social networking metrics, such as online engagement, to look at an individual’s online engagement or ‘digital footprint.’ Think Klout. Could influential people with strong ‘digital footprints’ be courted by the campaigns with digital versions of the ‘financial’ political action committees?
The 51st State?
46% of respondents to a recent Gallup survey say it is either very important or important to them to have access to political content online. 16% of the same poll say that they have, on at least one occasion, changed their views on an issue after online engagement. Across the Union, apart from the Deep South Republican states, a 16% margin would put most any state in play during a Presidential Election and would change the nature of the ‘battlegrounds’ the Democrats and Republicans continue to fight over; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida. Could the ‘digital space’ become the next State in the Union; a crucial virtual arena of floating and independent voters? Indeed – this could be an arena the Greens and other minor parties could flourish in given their lack of airtime and access of national / primetime slots.
Two final thoughts.
Whilst the top three searches on Google during the debate were on Simpson-Bowles [fiscal reform commission], Dodd-Frank [Wall St reform], and ‘who is winning the debate‘, the top three Twitter trends were, in reverse order, Romney’s win, Jim Lehrer and his failure as moderator, and..
‘Save Big Bird’ was in first place. Governor Romney had said earlier that he was going to stop the subsidy for PBS, the producers of Sesame St, and in the same breath said that he ‘liked Big Bird’. The message from social networking was immediate and clear: don’t mess with Big Bird Mitt Romney. On Twitter, Big Bird generated 17k tweets per minute; more than Mitt Romney’s nomination acceptance speech or President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address. There were 10k tweets per minute for PBS as well. Parody Big Bird Twitter accounts were set up with tens of thousands of followers between them; memes, cartoons and illustrations of Mitt Romney and Big Bird flooded social networks during the debate.
I guess the lesson here is that, for all intents of control and engagement by political campaigns, social networking remains, for now, the voice of the masses and of the vocal few.