August 15, 2012

How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media

Press Release

 

CONTACT: PEJ Deputy Director Amy Mitchell or Director Tom Rosenstiel at 202.419.3650

Analyzing the Digital Campaign:
Obama Outpaces Romney in Direct Voter Communications on Web, Social Media

The Obama campaign is using digital tools to communicate directly with voters-and bypass the filter of traditional media-at almost four times the rate of the Romney campaign.

August 15, 2012-On the eve of the conventions, Barack Obama holds a distinct advantage over Mitt Romney in the way his campaign is using digital technology to communicate directly with voters. The Obama campaign is posting almost four times as much content and is active on nearly twice as many platforms, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The report, which analyzed the content and volume of candidate communications on their websites and social media channels from June 4-17, 2012, finds that the digital gap between the campaigns was the greatest on Twitter.  The Romney campaign averaged 1 tweet per day while the Obama campaign averaged 29 tweets, 17 per day on @BarackObama (the Twitter account associated with his presidency) and 12 on @Obama2012 (the account associated with his campaign). Obama also had about twice as many blog posts on his campaign website than did Romney and more than twice as many YouTube videos.

The study also found that while both campaigns’ digital content primarily focused on their own candidate, roughly a third of the posts from the Romney campaign were about Obama-largely attacking him for a policy stance or action. About half as many of the Obama campaign’s posts, 14%, focused on his challenger during the period studied.

"As the conventions drew closer, Romney’s campaign took steps to close the technology gap, and may well take more with the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket," said PEJ Deputy Director Amy Mitchell. "But there is a long way to go before the Romney team matches the level of activity of the Obama campaign."

"While more digital activity does not necessarily translate into more votes, historically candidates who are first to exploit changing technology have an advantage," said PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel. "From Roosevelt to Reagan, presidential candidates have used the way they communicate to suggest that they understand how the country is changing."

This is the fourth presidential election cycle in which PEJ has examined the content of the digital campaign. This year, PEJ broadened its analysis to include examination of content posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well as blog posts and material featured on homepages of the campaign web sites.

Among other findings:

  • Both candidates’ digital campaigns have focused on the economy more than any other issue; 24% of all Romney posts and 19% of Obama posts were about the economy. However, the campaigns differed in the angle they stressed. The Romney campaign devoted nearly twice the attention to jobs in its posts- 14% of posts compared to 8% of posts from the Obama campaign. Obama’s economic messages were almost equally divided between jobs and broader economic issues, such as the importance of the middle class.
  • The economy may have dominated both candidates’ digital messaging, but other issues – such as immigration and health care – were far more likely to spur re-sharing by their digital audience. Obama’s posts about the economy generated an average of 361 shares or retweets. His posts about immigration, by comparison, generated more than four times that, and women’s and veteran’s issues generated more than three times the reaction. This was also true of Romney’s messaging. His posts on health care and veterans averaged almost twice the response per post of his economic messages.
  • Neither candidate offered much sharing or retweeting of its followers’ messages. If the internet offers the promise of making campaigns more of a two-way conversation with citizens, the candidates are not participating. For example, just 16% of Obama’s tweets over the two-week period studied were retweets. The Romney campaign had just one retweet during this period-something from Romney’s son Josh.
  • Obama’s digital strategy targets specific voter groups to a greater degree than Romney’s. Visitors to Obama’s website are offered opportunities to join 18 different constituency groups, among them African-Americans, women, LGBT, Latinos, veterans/military families or young Americans. If a visitor clicks to join a group, they then receive content targeted to that constituency. The Romney campaign offered no such groups at the time of this study. It has since added feature pages for nine groups, although users can still only join the general "Team Romney" rather than the particular voter group.

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The Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks the transformation of journalism in a changing information landscape through its annual State of the News Media report and a series of special reports. As part of the nonpartisan, non-advocacy Pew Research Center, it does not take positions on policy issues.

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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 23, 2014.