Welcome to the first digital presidential election.
You might have thought we lived through that four years ago, when the online-focused campaign of Barack Obama revolutionized modern politics in ways that are still coming into focus. After all, no previous candidate or campaign had ever adopted technology and the Internet as the heart of its operation or used it on such a scale.
Aided by MyBarackObama.com, the Facebook-like social network created with the assistance of that company's co-founder Chris Hughes and employing a team of young, Web-savvy programmers and developers who had cut their teeth on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential primary campaign, the underdog Obama embraced social media and hugged them closely all the way to the White House. He used social networks to raise record-breaking amounts of money—some $500 million from 3 million donors who made a total of 6.5 million donations online. He also used the new media to circumvent longstanding media and political brands and communicate with his supporters directly and interactively.
"On MyBarackObama.com, or MyBO, Obama's own socnet, 2 million profiles were created," Jose Antonio Vargas noted in one Washington Post campaign post-mortem. "In addition, 200,000 offline events were planned, about 400,000 blog posts were written and more than 35,000 volunteer groups were created. Some 3 million calls were made in the final four days of the campaign using MyBO's virtual phone-banking platform.
"Obama has 5 million supporters in other socnets," Vargas reported. "He maintained a profile in more than 15 online communities, including BlackPlanet, a MySpace for African Americans, and Eons, a Facebook for baby boomers. On Facebook, where about 3.2 million signed up as his supporters, a group called Students for Barack Obama was created in July, 2007. It was so effective at energizing college-age voters that senior aides made it an official part of the campaign the following spring."
The political importance of emerging social media was also demonstrated when citizens began using that same emerging media, its powerful tools and looser, more extensive social networks to communicate directly with their peers about the election, as media platforms that hadn't even existed just four years earlier began to play crucial roles in campaigns and the delivery of information about them.
Voter, candidate and party reliance on new tools and technologies—especially those that facilitated controlling one's own media—meant that the 2008 race for the presidency, with its viral emails, social networks, user-generated videos, fact-checking websites, MySpace and YouTube debates and other online innovations, provided an ideal prism through which to examine the rise of social media and to assess its impact on longstanding media and political brands alike.
But if you think the Internet and emerging social media transformed national politics in 2008, strap in—the coming campaign promises to be digital on steroids.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the Democrats—as evidenced by Obama's success—"get the Internet" and continue to enjoy a wide lead over their Republican counterparts in the use of social media. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. As online politics pioneer Mindy Finn notes, Republicans "have now seized the new tools like Facebook and Twitter."
Finn was Director of "e" Strategy for the Romney campaign in 2008, when she employed Web video, social networking, blog outreach, user-generated content gathering, email list building and online advertising to communicate the candidate's message, raise money and mobilize a base of support. "Social media is now absolutely central to all political campaigns," she told me. "The low barrier to entry gets you buzz, name recognition and effective money raising, all at a low, low cost."
Following Obama's November victory, Finn believes, Republican politicians understood and employed the power of online communications more than anyone on the left. She points out that in the 2010 mid-term elections, many Republicans surpassed Democrats in their adroit use of social media, and three Republicans in particular—Marco Rubio in Florida, Sean Duffy in Wisconsin and Rick Perry in Texas—ran online campaigns that made a huge difference for them. Like her Democratic counterparts, Finn is certain there's a transformational shift going on. "Social networking is now the very foundation of your campaign. It supports everything you do," she says. "It can't be compared to other media, and you just can't run old media campaigns like in the past."
Nowhere was that more evident than at the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum, the annual technology and politics conference that was dedicated this year to "The Internet's New Political Power," where Romney's current digital director Zac Moffat was part of a Harvard Institute of Politics-sponsored panel on the November election. Moffatt oversees digital strategy, online advertising, email marketing and online fundraising for the 2012 Romney campaign, and he boasts wide experience in and understanding of both the political and the digital worlds.
"The political campaigning/technology world is moving super-fast," Moffatt says, noting that his digital department is no longer an orphan child of the campaign, but has been granted equal status and a "seat at the table, its own budget and decision-making power" along with more traditional departments such as communications. "It's all equal now," Moffatt says. "The big difference is that there are more resources flowing into digital."
Like Mindy Finn, Zac Moffatt believes "the playing field is leveling" in the online battle for voter attention and influence, "especially on the margins, where the new technology gives great advantage," and that Republicans (or at least the Romney campaign) are no longer trailing in their use of new media tools and technologies.
In any event, it seems clear that, as Finn forecasts, "Both Republicans and Democrats will put an enormous effort into digital. Social networks are already having a major impact on all political calculations now taking place. They even are influencing the types of candidates we get, since they create more of an open door to run than in the past. People no longer have to feel counted out in advance. Anyone paying attention out there knows this is a game changer.
"Going forward, it will be social networks, and mobile in particular, that will be huge," she posits. "Everything will be much more distributed; there will be more partnerships, and much more outreach to bloggers and the community. Politicians will be forced to run less insular campaigns than in the past. Just being rich and throwing your weight around is not what wins campaigns anymore—instead it's your networks, organically built.
"What wins today is being in touch and then responding in an authentic way. When candidates actually believe this and participate personally, then they see its power... plus they benefit in many ways from the direct feedback. The candidate who can best tap into social will likely win in 2012."