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The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Obama and Romney campaigns battle over social media turf

by Josie Huang | The Madeleine Brand Show

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Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey listens while President Barack Obama speaks during an online Twitter town hall meeting from the East Room of the White House July 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama and Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey held the online discussion to speak about the U.S .debt ceiling crisis. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In the tight race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, social media is more important than ever, and both President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney are ramping up their game.

So who's winning the social media wars, and how much will it really matter on Election Day? Reporter Josie Huang does some digging to find out.

How many people do you know who've joined Twitter and Facebook since 2008? Your mother, your dog sitter, your mail carrier ? Well, they represent just a tiny silver of the millions of people that presidential campaigns can target through social media. It's cheaper than running a big TV campaign, and just think, if a campaign sends a message through Twitter, and it gets sent around the Internet by supporters — retweeted as they say in the Twittersphere — it's like their message is spreading on autopilot.

If we're just talking about sheer numbers, President Obama is the clear winner. On Facebook, Obama's page has more than 27-million likes, compared to Romney's 2 million. Obama also has 16.8-million followers on Twitter versus Romney's 500,000.

Kimling Lam, social media analyst of the Meltwater Group, doesn't think Romney is doing much with his account. "The Mitt Romney handle is literally putting out maybe one tweet a day at most and there's gaps in the days as well," said Lam. "The Barack Obama Twitter handle, however, is tweeting anywhere from 8 to 25 times a day. They're retweeting content, they're engaged with content."

Pinterest, the third-most popular social media site, is also getting a lot of attention from the campaigns. It's where you can post, or as they say on Pinterest, "pin" things like photos of wedding dresses on your page.

Media analysts say it's especially popular among women, a key voting bloc in upcoming elections. Since joining less than a month ago, Michelle Obama has picked up four times more followers than Mitt Romney's wife Ann, who's been posting recipes and photos of grandkids since February.

It's not surprising that President Obama's got more of a base online; he is the sitting president after all. But you don't necessarily need to have a ton of followers to be effective on social media. Think back to April: Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen criticized Romney for saying he turns to his wife for women-related economic issues. Rosen said Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life."

Ann Romney jumped on Twitter that day, and put out her first Tweet saying that being a stay-at-home-mom to five boys was hard work. That quickly put the Obama campaign on the defensive. You had Obama surrogates like Michelle Obama and his campaign manager David Axelrod coming out and condemning Rosen's comments. So score for the Romney camp.

But it's not all about Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest in this election campaign. The Obama camp just rolled out something called Dashboard. You sign up on-line, give your ZIP code, and the campaign tries to connect you with volunteer events.

But, probably the biggest new trend of this election cycle is using what technology experts call "big data" to get campaign donations from voters.

Andrew Rasiej studies the connection between politics and technology as founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. And he says that the Obama campaign, in particular, is collecting data with the sophistication of a Fortune 500 company. "So let's say you're a Democrat and you signed up for Obama e-mails but you haven't actually given him money. Based on your name and ZIP code they may be able to track you by your Tweets or your Facebook posts and determine that you are really interested in environmental issues," said Rasiej. "So they'll take that information and crunch it."

A woman who's involved with environmental issues, Rasiej says, might receive an email from Michelle Obama instead of Barack Obama, with the request: "Support my husband who is the strongest environmental president the United States has ever had."

Rasiej says that the Romney campaign is also using the same tools to build his database of potential voters, and is catching up to Obama.

So how much of an impact will social media have at the ballot box come November. Experts say they don't think it will make or break a campaign. Social media still has limited reach; only 15 percent of Internet users are on Twitter, for example.

On the other hand, the contest between Obama and Romney is expected to be tight. Obama has more cash reserves than Romney. But the super PACS supporting Romney are working in overdrive, actually outraising Obama campaign last month. In this race, any edge helps, and social media could be that edge.

With contributions from Raghu Manavalan

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