Discuss the role of social media in President Obama's campaign of 2012 and the use of social media and Web 2.0 in the presidential campaigns of Clinton and Obama in 2008.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't think that one can go very far in describing how the President won both his presidential campaigns without addressing his skilled use of social media.  In both campaigns, one of the primary differentiating points between he and his opponents was his ability to use social media effectively, with accuracy, and enlarge his electoral coalition as a result.  

In the 2008 campaign, then- Senator Obama demonstrated a cutting edge vision towards technology.  Twitter had only begun, and campaigns were only just adjusting to the "24 hour news cycle" and the "blogosphere."  The idea of using the internet for campaigns was seen as a means to generate revenue for the campaign.  Certainly, this is how Senator Clinton's campaign saw it.  They were embracing a traditionalist model of the internet.  Clinton's campaign managers did not see the interfacing of the internet community with the campaign.  They did not recognize that the young people who would be vital to the process were technological, by nature.  Instead, the Clinton people used the internet primarily for donors and not as a way to generate both "buzz" about their candidate as well as a place where the grass roots zeal for the campaign could be evident.

Barack Obama entered 2007 as a no- name candidate.  He did not have the establishment name of Clinton, and did not have the recognition she had.  Yet, he was able to use the internet as a way to generate a following that could overcome Clinton's early and often imposing advantages.  It made sense that former technological architects of companies like facebook helped to design the Obama campaign website.  In fact, the entire understanding of "barackobama.com" was a sort of technological branding that did not operate as a traditional website, as much as "a sort of social network."  From this use, the Obama campaign was able to create an intensity about their candidate, allow individuals interact with others about the campaign's aspirations, and "organize their local communities on behalf of Barack Obama."  His work as a community organizer translated into the world of social media, one that was definitive in establishing early success against Clinton, from which she never really recovered:

His campaign started from scratch early in 2007 with few resources and little name recognition, but the internet helped him connect to his core supporters in cost-effective ways. Many of his campaign’s early efforts were low-overhead strategies that utilised free resources. His nimble use of the internet helped him overcome the huge initial lead of Hillary Clinton in both fundraising and perceived viability. He was able to get more local volunteers on the ground in key states earlier than the Clinton campaign, which was especially important in smaller states and caucus states. 

The win in Iowa in 2008 was a reflection of youth and vigor, of campaign workers who shoveled snow off sidewalks so that polling places could be accessible and then posting pictures about it on the campaign website. Clinton's campaign machinery never quite "got it" in this regard, and thus a new narrative emerged in the campaign that she was never able to overcome. She became the "establishment candidate," the force of what is, and he was the vibrant and transformative visionary, equipped with his cutting edge use of technology.  The narrative stuck throughout the primary states and throughout the grueling process.  Social media became a defining point in the 2008 campaign because it put Hillary Clinton in a perceptional and actual position that she never envisioned when she announced her intent to seek the nomination for President.

In much the same way, the Obama campaign used social media in 2012.  At this point, the digital landscape had changed.  Twitter was now becoming the established means of communicating, the use of memes was emerging as a form of social media communication, and the social media landscape was a much more saturating force than ever before.  Campaign missteps or errors would be replayed quicker, longer, and with more stinging effectiveness than ever before.  This was the landscape on which President Obama engaged Mitt Romney in 2012.  Like 2008 with Clinton and McCain, the results turned out to be the same.

One distinct area in which the President's campaign used social media effectively in 2012 was in its use of Twitter.  After Governor Romney would make a provocative statement that was intended to capture the news cycle, the President's team used Twitter to blunt it or to change the dialogue.  An example of this was seen in the first Presidential Debate, in which Governor Romney asserted the need to cut funding to public broadcasting:

After Wednesday's presidential debates, for example, the Obama camp posted an image of Big Bird with a cutting caption that Mr. Romney wanted to fire him, in reference to the governor's remarks about trimming funding for organizations like PBS as part of budget measures.

The Obama campaign used Twitter to link "Big Bird," Romney, and his "penchant" for firing people all in one image.  In another instance, when the Republican National Convention featured actor Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair, the President's team blunted it the very next day with the iconic Twitter picture with the President sitting in the executive seat  with the tagline "This seat's taken."  Twitter was one way in which the President's campaign used social media in an effective way to blunt any points that the Romney campaign sought to make.

At the same time, the President's advantage in social media platforms in 2012 was overwhelming.  The numbers illuminate that the President's reach through social media was far more intense than that of Governor Romney's.  The President had over 20 million followers on Twitter at the time of the 2012 campaign.  Governor Romney had just over 1.2 million.  The President generated over 29 million "likes" on facebook, while Governor Romney was under 8 million.  The President had over ten times as many followers on YouTube.  The point is conceded that these statistics don't translate into actual votes.  To argue that this is the numeric reason for the outcome of the election is not logical.

However, these statistics do point to reasons why the President won.  The President's team was able to use the same narrative that they did against Clinton and McCain:  The 21st Century requires a 21st Century leader with the capacity to understand it.  The President's team was able to make a clear case through the use of technology that they "got it" and the other side didn't.  No clearer was this seen than in the politically brutal "47% comment."  This video made its appearance on YouTube before anywhere else.  It generated buzz and discussion in the online forums and before Governor Romney could get a hold of message to spin it, the video had gone viral.  It never left the campaign and could be seen as one of the major reasons why he lost the election.  At the same time, the President's reach onto social media forged inroads with young voters, technologically savvy voters, and the coalitions that helped him demonstrate victory.  These coalitions included women, those who were religiously unaffiliated, and those who saw the campaign's use of the internet as a way to reach them.  In this regard, the use of social media was a distinct reason for the President's success in both elections, and will most likely serve as a template for future elections to come.