August 15, 2012

How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media

Messaging – Two Different Strategies

Both candidates have focused mainly on promoting themselves and their campaign, but Romney was more than twice as likely to focus on Obama as the other way around.

Across all platforms studied, 55% of the posts from the Obama campaign focused on promoting his record and accomplishments. Similarly, 52% of the posts from the Romney campaign focused on its own candidate.

But Romney also devoted substantial space to discussing Obama. In June, roughly a third of posts from the Romney campaign (34%) were about Obama-largely attacking him for a policy stance or action. That was twice that of the Obama campaign (14% of which focused on Romney).  That difference held true across all platforms studied, except for Facebook where both Romney and Obama devoted the majority of posts to themselves (65% for Romney and 74% for Obama).  In late July, however, Obama began to focus more on attacking Romney, particularly in his "Get The Facts" section of the website.

An examination of the format of the content published also finds a difference in the way the candidates communicated. Romney tended to rely more on visuals-graphics, photos or videos. Obama tended to lean more heavily on text.  

 

Still neither campaign has devoted much content to anyone other than the candidates themselves or their opponent. The Obama camp found a few occasions to post about Congress (4%), or Republicans in general (2%), and there was just one post (on Twitter) that brought Joe Biden into the spotlight. But nearly a quarter (23%) did not focus on any individual. That was the case for 11% of Romney’s posts.    

The economy was the No. 1 issue for both campaigns in their digital messaging.

Another way of measuring the focus of the campaigns was to track the posts they made in social media and on their websites. For the two weeks studied in June, researchers tracked all of the posts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and on the candidate’s website blogs and homepages. The economy was the biggest subject. Nearly a quarter (24%) of Romney posts and 19% of Obama’s focused on the economy.

Romney’s messaging about the economy was distinctly different than Obama’s.  While Romney focused on the overall issue of unemployment and/or jobs more often than any other single aspect of the economy, he used the jobs issue primarily to criticize President Obama. Roughly three-quarters of Romney’s posts that touched on jobs were either disparaging of Obama’s comment that "the private sector is fine," or described him as hostile to job-creators and out of touch with the middle class. Only one-quarter of Romney’s posts on the economy either focused directly on his own plans or contrasted his plans with Obama’s.

In these digital posts, Obama’s campaign also covered a broader range of other domestic issues besides the economy.  Of a total of 24 possible domestic concerns, the Obama campaign posted content on 14.  The Romney campaign posted on nine, and in those discussions often circled back to the economy. When addressing Hispanic concerns, for example, the overall focus remained on jobs and unemployment and the campaign argued that the president had not done enough to help Hispanics. On June 6, Romney’s campaign posted three separate website blog entries to this effect, one of them by Marco Rubio, who wrote "Unfortunately, President Obama’s failed policies of new regulations, higher taxes, and Obamacare and his anti-business rhetoric have hit Hispanics especially hard. Big government really hurts those who are trying to make it.  And with unemployment still abysmally high, the Obama economy is crushing Hispanics’ dreams for their children to live a better life. The Hispanic community cannot afford four more years of double-digit unemployment and higher levels of poverty."

The Romney campaign did not touch on five of the 14 issues addressed by the Obama campaign. Those included immigration, education, public employees, gay rights and women and equal pay.  Here the Obama campaign tried to make a case for itself.

"Every GOP senator just voted against helping women get #EqualPay for equal work," read one Obama campaign tweet.  "Celebrate Pride month by looking at the progress we’ve made over the past three years under President Obama," read another.

While Obama’s messaging on his campaign website covered fewer issues than Romney, in other words, during the June period studied, his social media messaging was more expansive than Romney’s.

 

During the June period studied, both campaigns focused more on domestic issues than foreign policy, personal issues or even the political horserace, accounting for fully 50% of posts from the Obama campaign and 40% from the Romney camp. 

Obama’s next biggest focus, accounting for 20% of all posts, was fundraising and volunteering. That came through strongest on the website blog, where posts tended to try to convey the spirit of supporters of Obama, such as young volunteers who became involved because of Obama’s policies on women or Hispanics, someone who started an Obama fundraising page the day the president announced his support for gay marriage, and an Obama campaign field director answering questions about what it was like to volunteer for the campaign.

The Romney campaign’s biggest focus, after domestic issues, was Romney campaign activities, which accounted for 28% of posts. Multiple blog posts from the Romney campaign focused on the candidate’s "Every Town Counts" bus tour and included embedded Storify posts featuring photos and videos from various campaign stops.

Neither candidate talked much about either candidate’s public record. Romney’s team gave it a little more emphasis-but on Obama’s record not his own.

Foreign policy issues were all but absent-a sharp contrast from four years ago. During the two weeks studied, there was one post from Obama about foreign policy and not a single one from Romney.   (As noted, Romney has several tabs on his homepage that take users to his policy stances on a variety of foreign countries and Obama offers a page on various National Security issues. But these issues were not a part of what the campaigns discussed on their digital platforms over the two weeks studied.)

The study also measured the extent to which persons other than the two candidates were prominently featured in a photo or video to see which groups Obama was attempting to appeal to. The Obama campaign was somewhat more likely to include these images of these target groups than the Romney campaign was and in doing so displayed a wider range of constituencies. About half (49%) of Obama’s posts on Facebook, YouTube and the news blog featured citizen images; 40% of Romney’s did. (Twitter posts were not included in this count.)

The group most often featured by Obama was young people, followed by celebrities, women and the first lady-all speaking positively of Obama.

For Romney, the group shown more than any other was Hispanics, mainly voicing criticism of Obama’s handling of the economy.  

The digital communications of the campaigns often did not invite citizens to delve deeper.

Only about half of the posts studied here contained links of any kind, 44% for Romney and 51% for Obama.

When there was a link, the vast majority of the time it took users to another part of the campaign’s controlled communications rather than to some independent or verifying source (71% of Obama links and 76% of Romney links). This was the case for both candidates for every single link in a Facebook or YouTube post.

Fewer than 18% of the most prominent links for each candidate went to an outside entity. Links from the Obama campaign went to a slightly broader mix of places than those within Romney campaign posts. But still, the vast majority of Obama campaign links went to campaign or White House outlets.

In other words, for the most part, the digital communications of the campaigns were a closed loop, not a way to access the depth of the web.

One interesting element was how rarely the news media were a source of information or validation for what the campaigns wanted to argue. Just 5% of links for each campaign went to a mainstream news story. Obama also linked a handful of times to non-traditional news entities like ThinkProgress, MaddowBlog or the Huffington Post. One example from the Obama campaign came in a reoccurring blog feature "Did You See?" which lists a number of recent news items.  This one shown below was posted by one of his campaign staffers.

For Romney, the mainstream news media more often than not were a source to criticize the president. Most of the embedded links to news reports from the Romney campaign were to articles critical of Obama, such as the June 14 piece by Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) that appeared in the Tampa Tribune taking Obama to task for saying that "the private sector is doing fine."

No links posted during these two weeks went to citizen-produced content.

Cite this publication: Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 15, 2012) http://www.journalism.org/2012/08/15/how-presidential-candidates-use-web-and-social-media/, accessed on July 22, 2014.