Election 2012: Sizing Up the Social Media Battle

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama became the first candidate to use social media as a campaign strategy focal point.

To be fair, Twitter and Facebook, among other social networking sites, weren’t as prevalent in previous years as they were as the 2008 election was approaching. Nonetheless, Obama and his team maximized the use of social media to spread the message of “change” to the masses, particularly to young voters.

Fast-forward to 2012 and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone without some sort of social media presence, politicians included. According to a recent study by the University of Texas, elected officials are using social media to announce political stances rather than promoting their campaign. The research also revealed that politicians are getting more comfortable with social media, with 98% of Congress using at least one social media platform and 72% using Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

So in this race between President Obama and presumed-Republican nominee Mitt Romney, when it comes to social media, yes, both campaigns are active participants. For both camps, an ineffective online strategy would be a recipe for disaster.

As of July 17, Obama's official campaign Twitter handle (@BarackObama) had 17,579,880 followers on Twitter, compared to 663,586 for Romney (@MittRomney). In terms of reach alone, the edge clearly favors Obama as a single tweet can be seen by over 16 million more people than one Romney tweet can. On Facebook, Obama has 27,348,694 “likes” on his page versus Romney’s 2,408,396.

Both Twitter feeds are actually very similar. Posts read like prepared statements, and while each campaign is doing its best to present campaign facts and undermine the opposition, there is little to no interaction with followers.

On Facebook the messages are more of the same. However, both candidates are effectively using the visual advantages the site provides: Romney with the “upload your photo and stand with Mitt” tab and Obama holding up a smiling baby in the cover photo—a more personable approach for both.

A recent CNN analysis found that Obama is spending twice as much as Romney on online advertising. Zac Moffat, Romney’s digital director, told CNN that spending would ramp up as they got closer to the general election.

But numbers aside, the fact that social media is a high priority in this election shows that both campaigns are keeping the American people front and center, says Marguerite Murer Tortorello, former special assistant to the president and director of presidential correspondence under George W. Bush, and current senior vice president, public affairs for PCI.

“While the Obama and Romney campaigns, along with their super-PACs, are spending astronomical amounts on advertising, the power of social media, which is largely a low-cost medium, has reengineered the political campaign landscape," says Tortorello, who advances advocacy initiatives through traditional and social media efforts. “The campaigns are using their Twitter and Facebook strategies to convey authenticity and personality, without demonstrating too much polish in challenging economic times.”

As November approaches, both Romney and Obama will be looking for any possible advantage. The reach of social media provides limitless opportunities for their messages to reach voters, but the ultimate measure of success will be activating those likes and followers and getting them to the voting booth.

Follow Jamar Hudson: @jamarhudson