Led by social media leaders like Chris Hughes of Facebook, Obama managed to run circles around the Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain. Whereas the Internet was only a secondary concern for McCain, Obama made the web a central part of his campaign. As such, it wasn't much of a surprise that Obama had more than 20 times as many Twitter followers than McCain at the time of the election. This helps to at least partially explain the $150 million fundraising advantage that Obama had during the 2008 presidential election.
Twitter has become one of the tools most embraced by the candidates this primary season. Indeed, several of the Republican candidates participated in a debate held on Twitter in July. Through Twitter, candidates have been able to quickly communicate their message to interested parties and rally their base of supporters.
In particular, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been very active in cultivating a Twitter following. He even argued at one point earlier this year, when his poll numbers were still in the single digits, that he deserved more attention by the media on account of his numerous Twitter followers. With more than 1.3 million Twitter followers, he had far more followers than the rest of the Republican candidates combined. However, it was later revealed that most of those followers were created with fake accounts. It still showed the importance the Gingrich campaign was placing on social media, even if it meant buying followers for "social proof".
In addition, all of the candidates have been turning to YouTube as an alternative means of advertising their message during the campaign. Many of the campaign videos will see more views on YouTube than on traditional television, and the candidates have looked at YouTube as a low-cost way to spread their message visually, even if it means targeting a younger audience.
Of course, the social media blitz can hurt you just as much as it can help you. Texas Governor Rick Perry recently put out a much-pilloried video on YouTube that attempted to appeal to his political base on the religious right, attacking "Obama's war on religion." Although clearly targeted towards a specific audience in Iowa, the first state in the Republican presidential nomination race, the power of YouTube as a means of dissemination meant that the video received more than four million hits, not to mention continual replays on several news channels. However, the dislikes outnumbered the likes 30-to-1.
If there has been anyone who has been reluctant to embrace the digital revolution, it has been former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has been a consistent top tier candidate. His strategy was recently described in Forbes as having a "quaint, pre-social media, pre-2000 feel to it." Romney has been a front-runner for most of 2011 and this may have led his campaign to believe he didn't need to actively engage with his opponents. Interestingly enough, this strategy has worked out relatively well for him up to this point. Every candidate that has challenged him has quickly faltered. First, it was Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann after her first debate performance. Then, it was Rick Perry when he decided to enter the race. After that, businessman Herman Cain received all the attention.
Social Media Savvy
The use of social media in politics is still in its infancy, but its power is becoming more apparent by the day. Even Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, declared recently that the 2012 presidential election would be won or lost on the Web. He may be a bit biased, but there should be enough truth there to motivate all Republican campaigns to pay more attention to their social media strategy. And, yes, that means you, too, Mitt Romney.
Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore