Study: Obama campaign uses online media far better than Romney

Project for Excellence in Journalism

For a party that doesn't like traditional media much, Republicans still aren't using alternatives like online and social media particularly well. The Project for Excellence in Journalism's quadrennial comparison of presidential candidates' websites shows is cleaning's clock on posting frequency, Twitter use and urging action from supporters.

Reporters often describe presidential campaigns as bubbles, and PEJ's study finds the candidates' websites self-inflated, too. Obama's site has "largely eliminated a role for the mainstream press," it reads.

Four years ago the Obama campaign used press clips to validate his candidacy. The website no longer features a “news” section with recent media reports. Now the only news of the day comes directly from the Obama campaign itself. ...

The Romney website, by contrast, contains a page dedicated to accounts about the candidate from the mainstream news media, albeit only those speaking positively of Romney or negatively of Obama.

Another sign the incumbent understands Web strategy better: Frequency!

Obama’s campaign has made far more use of direct digital messaging than Romney’s. Across platforms, the Obama campaign published 614 posts during the two weeks examined compared with 168 for Romney. The gap was the greatest on Twitter, where the Romney campaign averaged just one tweet per day versus 29 for the Obama campaign (17 per day on @BarackObama, the Twitter Account associated with his presidency, and 12 on @Obama2012, the one associated with his campaign). Obama also produced about twice as many blog posts on his website as did Romney and more than twice as many YouTube videos.

Neither campaign does a particularly great job with the Web's main currencies: links and engagement, PEJ found. The candidates' sites linked stingily, and very rarely to outside outlets.

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. ...

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.

That closed-loop approach extended to the campaigns' social-media strategies during the two weeks PEJ studied (June 4-17, 2012):

On Twitter, for example, 16% of Obama’s 404 total tweets were retweets. And just 3% of all tweets (14) were retweets of citizen posts. The most prominent example of this was on June 14, when David Axelrod hosted a live Twitter Q & A consisting of 28 total tweets, 10 of which were re-tweeted questions from citizens, immediately following Obama’s speech on the economy in Ohio.

Romney produced just a single retweet during these two weeks and it came from his son Josh, who was passing along a photo of a climber holding a Romney campaign banner on Mt. Everest.

That lousy engagement may present an opportunity to Republicans, if they can ramp up their social engagement quickly: A Gallup poll published Monday showed that 87 percent of Republican voters have followed news of the upcoming election closely. Start tweeting at those folks, pronto!

Obama's got an organizing edge on the Web, having rallied his supporters digitally since 2008, the study notes. But that doesn't completely explain why he's creaming Romney in the all-important metrics of Twitter followers and Facebook likes.

Obama’s numbers surpass Romney’s by a margin of at least 13:1. That includes Twitter, which was not in the mix in 2008—and the Romney numbers are in question. In late July, Mitt Romney’s twitter feed suddenly reported a massive spike in followers—adding 141,000 in just two days time, but research into those followers finds that they were mechanically generated rather than real individuals.

The study goes into a lot more detail about the emphasis and tone the campaigns take on different issues. And while Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's respective websites might be imperfect reflections of their parties' Web savvy, there might be a deeper psychological strategy at work here. For example, both and open with splash pages -- cutting edge Web design back when the economy was good.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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