If the race to the White House was measured in Facebook likes, Twitter retweets and YouTube views, U.S. President Barack Obama would be strides ahead of his Republican competition.
So says a Pew Research analysis of the two presidential candidates' digital media strategies, which showed presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney's online campaign was being outpaced when it comes to connecting with voters.
'Clearly at this point, the Obama campaign holds a distinct advantage over the Republican opponent in use of digital technology.'—Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism
With only days to go until the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the report revealed that Obama's team posted nearly four times the amount of content compared to Romney's in the same two-week period (614 posts to 168 posts respectively), and that the president was also active on almost twice the number of social-media platforms.
A total of 782 posts or pieces of content were studied during the period.
The most striking difference was on Twitter, said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).
'Up with the times'
The Obama camp averaged 29 tweets a day (17 on @BarackObama, the account linked with the presidency; 12 on @Obama2012, the account linked to Obama's re-election bid). Romney's team averaged just one tweet a day.
The analysis monitored online engagement from the two camps from June 4-17, a period when the candidates were past the primaries and focusing on entering what Mitchell called "full campaign mode."
Being able to successfully exploit and show a grasp of new technology could give a candidate a leg up, the Pew researchers reasoned. That point has also been proven historically.
Tom Rosentiel, Pew's PEJ director, gave the example of the Kennedy-Nixon showdown broadcast in 1960, the first televised debate ever watched by Americans. The younger Kennedy showed foresight in understanding how the power of television could work in his favour due to his telegenic appeal.
Campaign watchers have noted that Twitter retweets and YouTube comments may be the new political tea leaves.
"You get the sense of being able to connect to people, being one of us — up with the times, if you will," Mitchell said.
"Clearly at this point, the Obama campaign holds a distinct advantage over the Republican opponent in use of digital technology," she added.
That includes everything from extent of use to the degree to which the candidates' official websites are able to tailor content targeting specific groups.
Mitchell said that although Obama's and Romney's election websites "are pretty much alike in terms of structure" and even "share a similar feel," Obama's website stands out by targeting 18 specific communities — such as African-Americans, women, homosexuals and veterans — and inviting people to subscribe for regular updates affecting them.
"Whereas at the time of the study Romney didn't have any, they now have nine. Although, you don't join groups, you just go to specific page with dedicated content," Mitchell said.
Economy top issue mentioned
Aside from an audit of the volume of online posts, the Pew report also examined the content of the messages to gauge priority issues.
Digital activity breakdown
- Twitter posts: Obama led with 404 posts to Romney's 16.
- YouTube posts: Obama led with 21 posts to Romney's 10.
- Website blog posts: Obama led with 106 posts to Romney's 55.
- Facebook posts: Romney led with 34 posts to Obama's 27.
—Source: Pew Research Center (Date range: June 4-17, 2012)
"The economy's been No. 1 for both, with Romney focusing largely on jobs, jobs, jobs," Mitchell said. "Whereas the Obama campaign messages were more on the broader sense of what the economy needs and the importance of the middle class."
There was a difference in style in the focus of posts as well, with Romney's campaign tending to communicate more via video and graphical elements, and Obama's team leaning more heavily on text.
Romney's digital messaging was also more likely to be aimed at Obama than vice versa.
"But that has started to change a little bit now when we got into early August, with Obama focusing more on sort of digging into Romney," Mitchell added.
Public response over social media to the Obama campaign also eclipsed Romney's. For example, there were 1,124,175 Facebook likes associated with Obama compared to 633,597 for Romney — a difference of 44 per cent.
"Looking at the response back from citizens in terms of the likes, the shares, the engagement, again we see double, triple in terms of response to Obama's posts as opposed to Romney's," Mitchell said.
Although this was the fourth presidential election cycle to compare the Democrat versus Republican camps' online communications strategies, the Pew researchers broadened the study this time.
Rather than just looking at official campaign website material, researchers also took into account activity posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — popular platforms that the study said "were either in their infancy, or that candidates made no use of four years ago."
Social media platforms
The Obama campaign had public accounts on nine separate platforms: Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Spotify and two accounts on Twitter (@BarackObama and @Obama2012).
The Romney campaign had public accounts on five platforms: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Google+.
—Source: Pew Research Center (Date range: June 4-17, 2012)
Mitchell noted that Romney's online campaign team still has time to close the technological gap.
The recent announcement of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate is expected to give him a boost.
"When you look at [Paul Ryan's]
numbers, he does have a greater digital presence, if you will, and so that may be an aspect that he may bring to the Romney campaign," Mitchell said.
As for what most engaged the public during the two-week period studied, America's troubled economy wasn't the most interesting topic for campaign followers.
By far the biggest draw across all platforms — with 211,663 views — was a YouTube video of Michelle Obama and her daughters, Malia and Sasha, wishing the president a happy Father's Day.