Assessing the digital campaign: Obama vs. Romney

As the 2012 presidential race heads into the home stretch, one of the contenders has taken a lead in the smart use of technology -- but both have room to improve.

Recent election polls show an increasingly tight race between the White House contenders, but on the topic of leveraging technology to push a campaign platform, incumbent President Barack Obama has an edge over his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, experts say.

An Aug. 15 study by Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism of how both campaigns are using digital tools revealed the Obama camp posted nearly four times as much content as the Romney campaign and was active on nearly twice as many platforms. Obama's digital content also prompted more response from citizens, twice the number of shares, views and comments of his posts.

The report also concluded that neither candidate is using digital tools to their fullest potential. Both of them are using the websites, text messaging and social media more to simply broadcast messages than to truly engage with voters.


Election 2012 Online:

President Barack Obama's campaign website

Challenger Mitt Romney's campaign website


“For the most part . . . the presidential candidates are using their direct messaging mainly as a way to push their messages out,” according to the report. “Citizen content was only minimally present on Romney's digital channels. The Obama campaign made more substantial use of citizen voices - but only in one area: the ‘news blog’ on its website where that content could be completely controlled.”

The greatest digital divide between the campaigns was found on Twitter. The Romney campaign on average tweeted once a day, while the Obama campaign averaged 29 tweets. Obama also had about twice as many blog posts on his campaign website as Romney, and more than twice as many YouTube videos.

Discrepancies also existed in how the campaigns are using direct messaging. For example, Romney's campaign was twice as likely to talk about Obama as the president was to talk about his challenger. However, both campaigns’ direct messaging focused on the economy, even if they took different approaches to do so. Romney's discussions focused on jobs, while Obama took a more philosophical angle on the nation’s fiscal conditions.

Neither campaign, however, embraced the social aspect of social media. Candidates rarely replied to, commented on or retweeted something from citizens. Three percent of the Obama campaign tweets studied in June were retweets of citizen posts. During the same period, Romney's campaign produced just a single retweet -- which happened to be something Romney's son, Josh, wrote. 

The report found campaign websites remain the digital center for political messaging. A visitor to a campaign’s Facebook page, for example, is likely to end up on the main website to donate money, join a community or read an article.

“A July redesign of the Obama page emphasized the centrality of the campaign website further,” according to the report. “Rather than sending users to the campaign's YouTube channel, the video link now embeds the campaign videos directly into the website, where the only videos are the ones Obama wants you to see.”

Mobile has been biggest emerging technology since 2008; the latest news is that the Obama campaign will soon the able to accept donations via text messaging, said Brad Frost, a mobile web strategist, designer and front-end developer at R/GA, who has analyzed and written about the campaigns' technology use.

“Both campaigns have taken steps to make their sites mobile friendly” but the Obama campaign is a few steps ahead, said Frost, who created the Mobile Web Best Practices, a resource site aimed at helping people create great mobile and responsive web experiences.

Knowing what to include on a mobile website has turned out to be one the biggest problems, he said. June 2012 estimates from Pew Internet say 31 percent of Americans – or 60 million -- now access the Internet primarily on their mobile devices. The trend means both candidates have the ability to reach more many more people than before with their websites. It also means having to decide what content to include or exclude, Frost said.

The Romney campaign has created a separate website that caters specifically to mobile-device users. But that mobile-optimized website is limited in content and contains only particular subsets of information from the desktop version. Romney's mobile website, for example, doesn't include the candidate's biographical information, Frost pointed out.

“That’s the main problem with creating a mobile site; people say, ‘this is important or this isn’t important to include,’ and what you end up doing is depriving people of useful information," he said.

Obama’s campaign has taken a newer approach to website creation, with implementing responsive web design. it's one of the technologies the Digital Government Strategy urges federal agencies to use to deliver better digital services to citizens. This type of web development works to design content so it works as well on a laptop as a smart phone or tablet, automatically adjusting to fit the screen.

“Having just one website that scales across the devices is becoming more important,” Frost said. One example of a responsive website is AIDS.gov, which was redesigned and launched June 2012. A responsive website “ensures that a site’s content is equally accessible via all devices without adding the extra cost of designing and maintaining separate ‘standard’ and ‘mobile’ sites,” Miguel Gomez, director, of AIDS.gov, wrote on the agency’s blog.

However, a responsive website has its own challenges, because “it’s all very young,” Frost noted. A website with several moving parts or functionalities– such as reader comments – may seem overwhelming to some and they choose to “hide” those features.

“The Obama campaign does a pretty good job of not hiding those things,” he said. “But the problem is, it’s very much a desktop site that’s sort of after-the-fact crammed down into smaller screens.”

The Obama website also seems to be lacking focus. For example, the desktop version serves up myriad of content, from images to blog posts, on the same page. The mobile view, however, presents “this really long, sort of sloppy, disparate experience that makes it hard to know what you’re looking at,” Frost said.

“There’s definitely room for improvement for both [campaigns]," he added. 

But despite the use of social media, apps and text messaging to engage with citizens, the technology used by both campaigns “isn’t very sophisticated,” particularly when it comes to mobile apps, said Tom Suder, founder and president of Mobilegov.

He agreed with Frost that the Obama campaign is somewhat ahead in its technology use because its apps link to the main website. However, overall these campaign apps aren’t typically cutting edge and are often available on just one platform. Additionally, there are no apps for tablets, either, he said.

“I’m not impressed, no,” Suder simply summed it up.

But if unsophisticated and underused technology weren’t enough, hiccups along the way can mar the campaigns’ digital efforts. When Romney campaign officials announced the vice president pick, the breaking news was supposed to come not in the form of traditional media but in the way of a mobile app. But although the app promised users they would be “the first to know” – ahead of the rest of the world and even reporters – the app alert came hours after some news organizations had already reported on the selection of the Republican running mate.

“The app struck me as pretty bizarre,” Frost said. “It was available only for iOS and Android devices. Romney was also bypassing the most ubiquitous publishing platform in the world – the web! It just seemed like a really bizarre reason to create an app.”

A similar tech fiasco occurred in 2008, when the Obama campaign used text messaging and email to announce Joe Biden as the VP pick. However, some reporters got wind of the news well before the official announcement. Some speculated the botched attempt to deliver the breaking news digitally cost $1 million.

But overall, with the advent of the tablet both campaigns missed an opportunity to take advantage of the “gorgeous, immersive” technology that exists for tablet devices, Suder noted. “People just haven’t caught up on it,” he said.

However, embracing digital tools and using them more actively doesn’t always mean more votes for either campaign. But being tech savvy and social media conscientious certainly has an edge.

"While more digital activity does not necessarily translate into more votes, historically candidates who are first to exploit changing technology have an advantage," Tom Rosenstiel, PEJ director, said in commenting on the Aug. 15 study. "From Roosevelt to Reagan, presidential candidates have used the way they communicate to suggest that they understand how the country is changing."

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