President Obama's camp is leading Mitt Romney in social media, but likes may not be everything in the presidential race
At the conclusion of the first presidential debate last Wednesday night, Mitt Romney's campaign posted a photo of their candidate and his wife, Ann, on Instagram. It garnered 3,500 likes.
Barack Obama's campaign posted a photo of the president at the debate podium.
More than 65,300 people liked it.
But likes may not be everything in this presidential race.
On Monday, the latest nationwide poll from the Pew Research Center showed 49 percent of likely voters supporting Romney and 45 percent of likely voters supporting Obama. In a Pew poll conducted Sept. 12 to 16, Obama had an eight-point lead among likely voters.
A member of the Romney campaign says the number of people knocking on doors is bound to beat the number tapping on their iPhones.
"The way we define success is that we are able to drive the campaign offline," said Zac Moffatt, the digital director of Romney's camp, who nonetheless acknowledged that the campaign has been buying Romney ads on Facebook for when users type “Obama” into search.
The Obama camp is still embracing social media, and pushing its limits as the campaign hits its final month.
"We obviously have embraced new types of media that may not be as influential as Twitter and Facebook, just as we thought Twitter was important back in 2008 when not as many people were on it," Obama campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan told TheWrap.
As the number of popular social networks has ballooned over the last few years, Obama's reelection team has tapped every implement in the shed of online campaign tools.
Obama was called "the first digital president" after his successful use of social media in 2008. So what's he up to this time and will it help get him a second term?
>> Despite posting a mere 128 photos on Instagram, the president has drawn 1.42 million followers on the photo-sharing app. And on Pinterest, the newest of the networks the campaign uses, he has attracted more than 34,000 followers with its 230 pinned images.
>> Similar images have appeared on the president's Tumblr, though the campaign has largely used the blogging site to respond to enthusiastic supporters and re-blogging positive posts about the president.
>> His team regularly hops on Twitter to refute his opponents' claims, most famously reminding Clint Eastwood, after the actor's appearance at the Republican National Convention, that the boss's chair in the Oval Office was "taken." It also is a place for the team to break news about the campaign without going through scrutinizing reporters.
>> And there's his presence on Facebook and Twitter. In 2008, his Twitter page had about 7,000 followers, compared to the more than 20 million now. In the same period, he's gone from 2.4 million Facebook likes to nearly 29 million.
The "likes" in Facebook's sphere can help the campaign target ads toward potentially undecided voters, Hogan told TheWrap.
For example, the social-networking giant's algorithm identifies prospective voters who "like" a page supporting gay marriage, and may see the Obama ad: "President Obama supports repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Add your support now!"
The platform's sharing option, which allows users to rebroadcast a post in their newsfeeds to their own friends and followers, helped infographics released by the campaign go viral online.
"The biggest change from 2008 to 2012 that I've seen is that in 2008, Twitter existed but nobody was using it," David Karpf, a Rutgers University professor who has studied the way the internet has changed political campaigning, told TheWrap. "They had an account, but they weren't using it as much."
"Now," he said, "they're being much more clever with Twitter."
More than any other social network, Karpf said Twitter — where political journalists monitor outgoing tweets for gaffes and signals of the campaigns' health — creates the biggest ripple in the media pool.
"The campaign is aware that Twitter is where a lot of the conversation is going on," Karpf said. "They're playing along with that, and they're engaging with that."
Meanwhile, new technologies have given rise to more image-based social media platforms that can make more of an impact visually.
On Instagram, there was the sepia-tinged photo of actress Natalie Portman pledging support for women's rights — which drew more than 70,000 likes. And, after Romney said at the first debate that he "likes Big Bird" but would cut what he sees as frivolous funding for public television, Obama posted a picture of the tearful "Sesame Street" fowl. (On Tuesday, the Sesame Workshop, noting that it is a non-partisan, non-profit organization, issued a statement asking that a new ad from the Obama camp attacking Romney's position on "Big Bird" be removed.)
"We've seen a focus on image politics in the U.S. really over the last two or three decades," Tom Hollihan, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, told TheWrap. "As voter information and knowledge about politics may be shrinking, images are more important than ever before. People evaluate images to try to judge character."
Hogan agrees. "Images play a much bigger role — our infographics are extremely popular with our donor base," she said of charts displaying the number of supporters the president has garnered through fundraising. "Our jobs chart, when it's updated every month, that image bounces around Facebook — it's definitely our biggest shared item."
Lacking the incumbent advantage, Romney, on the other hand, has struggled to close the gap between his and Obama's social-media presence. Whereas, Obama had more than four years to accrue followers, friends and likes, Romney's 1.3 million Twitter followers pales in comparison to Obama's 20.5 million.
But, with the vice presidential debate Thursday night and the election less than a month away, Romney is now throwing more than mere pebbles at the digital Democratic Goliath.
A spokesman for the Romney campaign dismissed what he called "vanity metrics," insisting that Obama has a less engaged fan base than his Republican challenger.
"We couldn't care less about vanity metrics," Romney's digital director Moffatt, told TheWrap. "If those mattered, Justin Bieber would be president and Lady Gaga would be vice president."
He said that, though the president has had five years to build his online base, Romney has a "small group that's highly engaged."
"I think the intensity is on our side," said Moffatt, who overhauled the campaign through a series of Silicon Valley partnerships.
Moffatt helped pioneer mobile fund-raising efforts, partnering with Square — an app that allows users to scan credit card payments with a coin-sized device that plugs into smartphones' headphone jack — effectively turning every campaign volunteer into a walking Romney pop-up store.
TechCrunch reported that the campaign raised "well into the seven figures, during the convention."
And during Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver, the former Massachusetts governor's team was quick on the draw, rapidly tweeting and updating Facebook with refutals of the president's criticisms.
"If you think about the debate, real-time conversations happen on Twitter," Moffatt said. "Of 10.3 million tweets, we had positive mentions 2.5 times more than Obama."
On the eve of the first debate, Romney's campaign bought the sponsored Twitter hashtag #CantAfford4More, playing off the challenger's core point that the nation doesn't have the money for Obama's budgetary priorities for another four-year term.
And on Facebook — which allows advertisers to pay their way to the top hit in search results for specific keywords — if users type in "Obama," a paid-for result for Romney appears first.
Though Moffatt said "no one has done more digital advertising" than Obama, the purchased exposure has bolstered the GOP.
"Advertising is just another way of making people keep you in the front of mind," Moffatt said. "But I can't, in good faith, say that we are doing more than them."
"They are flooding the system and still not seeing results," he added.
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