How Obama brought political campaigns into the 21st century

Before the 2008 presidential election, almost no one thought they could ever be “friends” with a presidential candidate. Political candidates, however, now use Facebook as a timely, cost-effective way to reach out to voters. Barack Obama was the first to dip his toe into the social media pool during his 2008 presidential campaign. Obama very much wanted to lead a grass roots campaign that mobilized and reached out to people all over the country, and social media was the perfect way to achieve this goal. Social media is young and exciting, which works well with Obama’s brand. In 2008, he stood for change and appealed especially to young, idealistic voters, so taking his campaign and message to social media was a stroke of genius. Critics largely agree that Obama’s campaign, particularly on social media, stands as a shining example for other presidential hopefuls. He hired a skilled IT team and kept his brand consistent across all of his social media outlets. Much can be learned from both his 2008 and 2012 bids for President of the United States.

2008 Presidential Campaign

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign set a new precedent for political campaigns. In order to connect with younger voters and to mobilize support, Obama became an active force on Facebook. Obama’s campaign called for change and he branded himself as a new and exciting force in American politics. This, in turn, excited young people on social media.

When the campaign ended, he had five times more “likes” on Facebook than his opponent John McCain. Obama understood the importance of social media in the lives of young people and capitalized on this by posting photos and comments regularly. The Obama campaign also paid for advertisements to appear on the site knowing that young people spend more time on Facebook than they do watching television. With such a heavy presence on social media, Obama’s campaign was able to reach out to a wide array of voters all over the country.

Very little is written on McCain’s social media campaign strategy because it became clear that his team did not make any meaningful attempts to connect with voters using this medium. His Facebook account had far fewer posts than Obama’s and his overall presence on social media was dull in comparison to Obama’s image-heavy page. In the end, Obama’s social media campaign was so successful that it led Republican challengers to rethink their mode of operation.

2012 Presidential Campaign

Coming into his second-term election, Obama continued to dominate the social media realm. At the height of the election anticipation, Obama had 27.1 million “likes” on Facebook, 18.5 million Twitter and 1.2 million followers on Instagram. Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign on social media stacked up quite differently with only 4.1 million Facebook “likes,” 850,000 Twitter followers and 28,000 followers on Instagram (Pardee).

Both candidates took different approaches to branding themselves on social media. Henriette Stisen wrote about the Obama and Romney’s campaign strategies. In “Branding: When Political Campaigns Turn to Social Media,” she says, “Obama’s campaign stood for change and a modern approach to running America, so his Facebook made use of visuals with an Instagram-feel (filtered colours and artsy angles) on a Timeline totally aligned to the design style and tone of voice” (Stisen).


When it comes to Romney, she writes, “His social media presence needed to reflect his traditional, conservative values, so his campaign used a visual identity that had a less polished and aligned feel and design style, by keeping to simple visuals stripped from the ‘hipster’-feel” (Stisen).

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney also contributed to each campaign’s respective social media efforts. Both women created Pinterest accounts, usually “pinning” photos, recipes, etc. that seemed non-campaign related, but ultimately tried to paint a picture of each family as happy and possessing all-American values.

Twitter also became an overwhelming force during the election. On the night of the first presidential debate, there were 10.3 million tweets in 90 minutes, which, at the time, made it the most tweeted about moment in America’s political history. The Obama campaign decided to take advantage of Twitter’s enormous popularity by using hashtags to famously point out some of Romney’s most infamous gaffes, including his “binders full of women” comment at the second debate and 47% remarks. When Obama coined the term “Romnesia,” Twitter lit up and “#Romnesia” started trending worldwide. Romney claimed that Obama used these catch phrases to distract from the real issues at hand (Goldman). Clearly, the public did not agree because Twitter followers retweeted Obama a record-setting number of times during the campaign.

Ultimately, Obama won both the election and the war on social media by building a likeable, shareable and modern brand that Internet users wanted to associate with online.

What lies ahead?

When the election ended, the general consensus across party lines was that Obama’s campaign blew Romney’s out of the water, and social media was a major factor in this defeat. Obama hired his own IT department and had a large staff working exclusively on his social media presence, whereas Mitt Romney outsourced his IT needs (Gallagher). Perhaps this is one explanation for Obama’s success and Romney’s failure. A fair amount of debate continues as to what went wrong with Romney’s strategy, particularly in regards to social media. Did he have too little activity in comparison to Obama? Did his brand make him look lackluster in comparison to Obama? The debate will inevitably go on, but experts all agree that Obama’s campaign serves as a shining model for presidential hopefuls.


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