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Much has been made of the use of Social and Digital Media during the recent US Presidential campaign, with Team Obama’s better handle on new technology cited as the possible difference in the final result.

A fundamental understanding of communication has always been at the centre of a politician's arsenal, but as US writer Daniel Nation argues “a firm grasp on the future of communication can be the secret weapon that wins the war”. 

For Roosevelt, it was radio; for Kennedy, it was television; for Obama, it is Social and Digital Media. 

Or put another way, argues the NYT’s Steve Lohr, “technology doesn’t win political campaigns, but it certainly is a weapon — a force multiplier, in military terms”.

(Of course all that’s old can be new again. See John Howard’s use of talk-back radio, when Prime Minister, to circumvent the Canberra Press Gallery.)

Obama was the first US Presidential candidate to utilise Social and Digital Media, developing a then unprecedented following during his successful 2008 run. Clearly Republican candidate Mitt Romney would have to heavily utilise the new technology as part of his ammunition in 2012. 

On election night last November, President Obama had 32 million Facebook fans, 21 million Twitter followers, and 259,685 YouTube views. Romney had 12 million Facebook fans, 1.7 million Twitter followers, and only 29,172 YouTube views.

In Romney and the GOP’s defence, Republicans are on average older and less tech-savvy than Democrats and Obama did have four years in the White House to build on his already substantial digital shadow garnered in 2008. 

But clearly the President’s team knew the importance of social and digital media as a tool and did a better job using it to create both influence and action.

And it’s the action part of the equation that is the most instructive.

It is all well and good to have 32 million Facebook fans. The late Michael Jackson’s FB page has more than 41 million likes, but it’s nigh on impossible its administrators could have real influence over the behaviour of the page’s fans. 

While the success of the 2008 Obama campaign strategy could be seen in the tasting of the pudding, it had a fundamental weakness: too many databases. Volunteers making phone calls through the Obama website worked from lists that differed from those used by callers in the physical campaign office. Get-out-to-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. 

An Obama campaign official told Time Magazine: “We analysed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place (but) none of them talked to each other”.
 
According to Personal Democracy Media’s senior staff writer, Sarah Lai Stirland, the 2008 campaign was unique in allowing grassroots supporters to take the lead in States where the campaign lacked resources. It led to an organic growth in support but this support was also chaotic and unsynchronized.

Enter the Dashboard, a web application accessible by signed-up volunteers — and viewable on smartphones or tablets — showing the location of campaign field workers, neighbourhoods to be canvassed, and blocks where help was needed.  It allowed people to join a neighbourhood team and get assignments remotely, without ever going to a central office.

The Obama Biden team developed a tool for telephone canvassing from people’s homes instead of having to travel to a campaign office and work from a telephone bank. The call tool was a web program that let people sign up to make calls. They received a list of phone numbers, names and a script to use.

Volunteer callers’ profiles were matched with the lists they received, so the callers were people with similar life experiences to those being called, and thus more likely to be persuasive.

The sheer scale of the online outreach and data collection dwarfed the 2008 effort. For example, the Barack Obama Facebook site had 33 million “likes,” compared with 2 million for the previous campaign.

As Time Magazine’s White House correspondent, Michael Scherer, explains it, campaign manager Jim Messina promised a new, metric-driven of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. 

“We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” Messina said after taking the job. 
He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of 2008, with an official “chief scientist”, Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximise the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.

Ghani and the team created a single massive system to merge information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.

The new mega-file didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals.

This helped Obama raise US$1 billion, remodelled the how TV ads were targeted and created detailed models of swing-state voters, used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.