The 2012 Election and Social Media

Before addressing the “must-haves” for the President’s digital strategy, it’s important to understand said demographic, both as a consumer and as a voter. Not surprisingly, this audience dominates the online and social networking space. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 83% of Internet users age between 18-29 years. The percentage drops off significantly as the age range increases (only 51% of those between the ages of 50 and 64).

Secondly, according to the most recent census, voters aged24 and younger made up 10% of voters in 2008, and were the only age bloc that increased its participation since 2004.

Finally, a staggering number of people aged 20-29 do not have jobs. The Census Bureau found that in 2010, one in three was unemployed. As a result, this demographic presents an enormous challenge as well as an opportunity for OFA. The President must connect with this group and make his case for why they should support him as strongly as they did three years ago.

After Obama’s 2008 victory, OFA received widespread praise for its social media strategy. This admiration was deserved, mainly because OFA implemented a tool that was foreign to almost everyone else in professional politics. David Axelrod, top strategist for the 2012 campaign and former senior advisor to the President, acknowledged that “so much of our support [in 2008] came from younger, more wired people.”

But now the element of surprise is gone. Consider the differences between the social media landscape in 2008 and today.

In 2008, Facebook had 100 million users; today it has 800 million.
In 2008, Twitter had 8 employees; today it has more than 400.
In 2008, YouTube averaged 13 hours of video uploaded every minute; today it averages 48 hours.
Foursquare did not even exist.

Most importantly, today almost every politician uses social media in some capacity. That means the bar is set higher for creatively integrating social media into a campaign. Thirteen months out from the next election, the president has more than 23.6 million “Likes” on his Facebook page, another 10.7 million Twitter followers, and videos from his YouTube page have garnered nearly 165 million views.

However, it’s not enough to simply record a video message or tweet about an event. Young voters want to interact and be part of the conversation.

The Obama campaign will need to approach social media as a gateway to open a two-way dialogue, not a vehicle for pushing out traditional campaign talking points. “Social media has gone from a publishing platform to a really interactive space,” said Andrew Foxwell, manager of marketing and new media at iConstituent, in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

“You have to interact. That’s the added value of social media.” While the Obama campaign has partnered with Facebook and LinkedIn to host interactive events, its strategy will need to become more fluid and consistent as the president enters “campaign mode.”

Consistency is not the only barometer for success. Connecting with young voters necessitates more than a typical blast from one of Obama’s top deputies. Instead, OFA might try sponsoring a debate-watching party for which participants check in via Foursquare. While watch parties are not a unique concept, young voters are more likely get involved if courted via social media.

Another option could be a video series, titled “Voting For My Future,” in which supporters record 30-second YouTube clips that explain why they plan to vote for the President. The most-viewed videos would be featured in a television ad paid for by OFA.

These two-way conversations are critical for attracting young voters because their likelihood to vote is so erratic. Voter turnout among those aged 18-29 fell by 60% from 2008 to 2010, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). While turnout in Presidential Elections is typically higher, the President will face the significant challenge of getting younger, unenthusiastic and often jobless voters to the polls.

“Since 2004, young voters have been one of the strongest Democratic constituencies,” explains CIRCLE director Peter Levine, who told The Nation that “Democrats need to engage them better than they did in 2010.” Interacting with younger voters through social media will have to be a cornerstone of the President’s tactics.

If young voters stay home on Election Day, much like they did in 2010, the President’s odds for re-election will be very slim. To draw this segment of voters to the polls, President Obama will need to speak not just to them, but with them. The campaign’s social media strategy will need to be strong — one that young, tech-hungry voter views as worthy of his attention, and most importantly, his vote.

Clark Davidson