Well, we made it. Election 2012 is history, and now we’re on to a whole new set of political battles. But first, let’s look back at a few things that actually mattered in digital media this cycle.
Facebook didn’t win the election for Barack Obama, nor did Twitter lose it for Mitt Romney. Both campaigns—and thousands of others up and down the political scale—did use social channels to spread their messaging, engage supporters and get them to the polls. But despite the time and money invested in social community management, Facebook ads and Sponsored Tweets at the presidential level, social media was just one of many arrows in the digital quiver.
For down-ballot candidates, the story could be different: many credited social media organizing with putting Ted Cruz in the Senate for instance. He and his Tea Party supporters relied heavily on Facebook and Twitter to win the hearts and minds of Texas Republicans, helped by a delayed primary that gave them time to build grassroots support. Across the country, state and local level campaigns that couldn’t afford the kind of comprehensive online operations available to Obama and Romney also found digital social networks to be ideal places to recruit and mobilize supporters.
But I’ll argue that the really interesting (and significant) role of social media in 2012 wasn’t what the campaigns did; it’s what we did. Social media lived up to the “social” part of its name this year, in that the cumulative effect of what millions of people did on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube impacted the course of the election. Romney’s 47 percent remarks? Those were dug up by Jimmy Carter’s grandson and published in Mother Jones—effective because of the visceral impact they had on the millions who watched them on YouTube, spread them on Facebook or (later) saw them on TV.
Likewise with “binders full of women,” a phrase that 20 years ago, when the same handful of white men analyzed presidential debates on TV news, may have passed by essentially unnoticed actually had a lasting impact. In 2012, when Twitter has turned all of us into pundits and propagandists, quick-thinking digital activists had created a Twitter feed, Facebook page and Tumblr blog within minutes of Romney bringing up the “binders.” The Facebook page alone had more than 200,000 fans in less than 12 hours.
The campaigns obviously tried to influence the social conversation—think “Romnesia” and “You didn’t build that”—but their millions of followers were at least as likely to pay attention to something a friend posted online than content posted from a campaign.
The news media played into this new landscape, too. Analyses of the topics trending on Twitter became a staple of post-presidential debate discussion on cable news, and before the second debate, E.J. Dionne told his washingtonpost.com readers to “watch Twitter” to see who won. To a powerful degree, Twitter and Facebook shaped the communications environment in which the campaigns took place, continuing the steady erosion of television’s role as the primary driver of the public conversation about politics.
It played a huge role at the presidential level. Both campaigns employed data-mining and microtargeting techniques, but it was the Obama campaign that truly excelled at using information about individual voters to drive recruitment and persuasion. Some of this data was the kind of demographic and behavioral information also used by commercial advertisers to target direct mail and online ads (and also used by the Romney campaign), but much of Obama’s data derived from one-on-one contacts between local campaign organizers and voters in their own neighborhoods.
This profoundly granular information about individual voters and their preferences helped the campaign focus persuasion work on the persuadable and GOTV on the voters likely to vote for their guy. Precinct-level modeling? That’s so 2004. This year was all about reaching individual voters.
Data drove targeting and the ability of campaigns and outside groups to target voters exploded this cycle. We’ve talked extensively in Tech Bytes about cookie-based, voter-file targeting, and plenty of campaigns used commercial ad networks’ cookie pools to reach categories of voters for turnout and persuasion. Other campaigns—again, particularly down-ballot—turned to Facebook and other geo-targetable options to deliver ads within their districts (or at least as much within their districts as possible).
A less-discussed option was behavioral targeting—reaching people based on what they’ve done rather than who they are. A common example was to target someone who had already donated, say, $10 to the campaign with an ask for $20. Another method: reaching out to a supporter who has acted online with an opportunity to volunteer in person. Obviously you need to be tracking people’s behavior to target them behaviorally, but even elementary list-segmentation can yield results.
Campaigns that combined demographic and behavioral information could actually segment/microtarget their supporter lists to a degree that was essentially untrackable by outsiders. ProPublica tried, via their crowdsourced “Message Machine” project, but even they could only capture a small percentage of the email variants sent out to the field. The goal of such customized messaging: supporter action, particularly in the form of donations.
And then there was the now-legendary Democratic ground game deployed by the Obama campaign. Obama’s field organizers used data as fuel, but information turned out to be a constantly renewable resource. Even as those millions of phone calls and in-person visits were driven by data, conducting them yielded even more numbers.
As Election Day approached, the campaign knew who its voters were and whether or not they’d voted early, helping them model the election in different states in advance and focus their GOTV efforts accordingly. Obama won plenty of states narrowly, and while it will be difficult ever to know exactly what put him over the top in, say, Florida, his data-driven, Internet-enabled grassroots operation is going to get plenty of credit.
The biggest winner of 2012? The local TV stations that rolled in money spent by campaigns, Super PACs and other outside groups. ‘Nuff said.
A few of the big losers:
- Orca and other Republican Election Day technology. Guys, next time give it a real test in advance.
- Karl Rove
- TV viewers in battleground states (I’d have shot my TV if I had to watch those crummy, endlessly repeated ads.)
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a 15-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org