Ben Adler is a writer for The Nation.
The Obama campaign may have recently overplayed their advantageous new media hand. The campaign Website posted a feature called "The Life of Julia" which was meant to show the important role of government programs in the life of the average American. Julia attends a head start school, a high school that participates in Obama's Race to the Top program, gets a loan to start her own business from the Small Business Administration and so on. And with each step we are reminded that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to cut all of these programs. Conservative bloggers and columnists went ballistic with their derision and mockery, composing alternatives such as "Julia is enrolled in a Great Leap program where she will learn critical community organizing and obedience skills."
But one can see why the Obama campaign thought the feature might be a good idea. Up until now they've had a strong lead over the Romney campaign in developing clever, creative features on their Website. In recent months they released a widget that allows you to enter your gender and age to see what the Affordable Care Act will do for you, and a Buffett Rule calculator that allows you to enter your annual income to compare your tax rate to Mitt Romney's currently (13.9 percent) and with the Buffett Rule (it would be 30 percent.)
The Romney campaign hasn't matched Obama with these advanced interactive tools. There are two reasons for that, one is organizational and the other is philosophical.
Organizationally, Romney is simply far behind Obama in plugging staff resources into Web development. Obama did not have a competitive primary, and he has raised money prodigiously, while Romney is playing catch up. "Digital is the biggest department at Obama's headquarters," notes Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist with a specialty in new media. "They've had a big lead time. All the parts of a campaign that are about infrastructure, as opposed to messaging state-to-state, is where they're going to be strong right now. When I worked for the Bush campaign [in 2004] we had all sorts of advantages over the Democrats in terms of data, field, and infrastructure operations because we were running uncontested. Obama has been building this for a year. As you get into general election, the digital side will only get more important for the Romney campaign. "
"Comparing the Obama campaign — who haven't gone through a primary — with 750 staffers, versus Romney with 87 is comparing apples and hamburgers," says Zac Moffatt, digital director for the Romney campaign.
But there is also a difference in the campaigns' digital approach. Moffatt says that making the most elaborate interactive widgets on a campaign website is not necessarily any more useful at voter persuasion than static ones. Thanks to social media, any piece of online content is interactive in the sense that it can now be shared and promoted. And most online users are not going to campaign websites, but rather coming across campaign content via sites where they are already spending their time: web ads that pop up while they read a news site, or recommendations from friends on Twitter or Facebook.
"The Website is no longer the only platform," says Moffatt. "You have to reach people on the platform they're on. If we have graphic on how Obama has decimated women's economic opportunities, you could say that's flat, but we could say 25,000 people have shared it."
An example of how the campaign has turned flat content interactive would be Romney's jobs plan, which you could "pay" for downloading on your Kindle by tweeting about it using a code. (It was actually free). With around 40,000 downloads it rose to number nine on Kindle's best seller list. "For a 160 page jobs plan that's pretty impressive," Moffatt boasts.
The Romney campaign also contends that Obama's fancy widgets like The Life of Julia are preaching to the converted, and online ads are a far more important way of reaching undecided voters. Not many swing voters are visiting an incumbent president's campaign website six months before an election. "If someone goes to barackobama.com in April, they're not persuadable," says Moffatt. "The real conversation occurs in paid media."
Of course, the downloads of Romney's jobs plan are presumably being performed by supporters. Just as the Obama campaign creates interactive widgets in the hopes that true believers will share them with friends, Romney's jobs plan is seldom downloaded by the sort of swing voter who makes up his mind in October.
For all of the attention that expensive television advertising investments by campaigns and Super PACs will generate, TV is being slowly supplanted by the Internet as the most important political advertising medium. Online ads can be carefully targeted to people who fit certain demographic profiles or have shown interest in certain subjects through searches. Compared to blanketing everyone watching the nightly news or a popular sitcom, it is far more efficient, because you can avoid wasting your dollars on non-voters or people who are certain to vote for your opponent. "A TV ad versus an Internet ad is using a hammer versus a scalpel," says Moffatt. Moreover, thanks to more advanced recording technology and streaming of TV shows online, increasing numbers of people don't even watch live TV and therefore don't see the ads. "One-third of people haven't watched live TV except for sports in the last week," notes Moffatt. "You're missing one-third of potential voters if you just do TV."
So the Romney campaign plans to ramp up its online advertising in the general election. There will be widgets embedded, and "rich media" ads, and viewers will be able to share the ones they like on social media. Despite the fact that Romney's supporters skew older than Obama's, everyone is online in 2012, and Republicans can't afford to lag Obama in that sphere. "Last time it wasn't clear McCain got the Web," says Ruffini. "Now both parties get the Web. The Tea Party helped out on this front; they understand online organizing."
"No one has a monopoly on technology in 2012," says Moffatt. It's become too pervasive. Has Obama done better than Republicans in the past? Perhaps, but that's a moot point now."