U.S. Presidential election results and the changing nature of political communication

Despite predictions of a down-to-the-wire election, the US presidential election on 6 November 2012 provided incumbent President Barack Obama (Dem) with a definitive win both in Electoral College votes and the National Popular Vote. When Associated Press called Florida, the last state to be finalised, for President Obama, it gave him the overwhelming lead of 332 Electoral College votes, well in advance of the 270 votes needed to win and of Governor Romney’s (Rep) 206 votes.

A Democrat win was in contention in the lead-up to the election partly due to an electoral redistribution as a result of a national Census in 2010. This changed the Electoral College map, making Virginia, Iowa, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, and Ohio key ‘battleground’ states. While New Hampshire and Wisconsin's Electoral College vote allocation did not change, significant political shifts within these states made them important 'swing' states.
Electoral College vote redistribution

The election was called in favour of President Obama late on Tuesday 6 November 2012 evening with results revealing that he had won all the battleground states, bar North Carolina, edging out expected wins for Governor Romney in Florida, Virginia and Ohio. President Obama also won all the other states that he won in 2008 except for Indiana and Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district (Maine and Nebraska divide their Electoral College votes by congressional districts as well as state-wide). Governor Romney conceded defeat early morning on Wednesday 7 November 2012.

There was mild controversy on election night when networks called the Ohio result, giving it to President Obama. Republican advisors and the Romney team were reluctant to concede Ohio as they believed that votes from counties that were expected to go Republican were still to be counted. This created a time lag on networks on election night as they anticipated a Romney concession speech and Obama victory speech but had to wait for further results to come in. When it became clear that Obama had won Colorado and was leading in Florida, leaving Romney well behind the 270 mark, the Romney camp conceded defeat.

2008 Electoral College breakdown

2012 Electoral College breakdown

It may seem that this election doesn’t carry with it the same ground-breaking aura as the 2008 election. In 2008, the US election made history with the election of the first African-American president – who was also the first African-American to be nominated as a presidential candidate by either party. It was also the third time that a sitting US Senator had been elected President. President Obama had won the popular vote with a 6 point margin, with over 69 million people voting for him, as well as the Electoral College vote—365 to Senator John McCain’s 173.

At the 2012 election the margin in the popular vote was smaller, reflecting a lower voter turnout. President Obama won with a 3 point margin over Governor Romney with over 63 million people voting for him (although the primary vote count is still preliminary as some States will not certify votes until later in November and December).

On the broader front, however, this election did create history in many ways. The States of Maryland, Maine and Washington successfully voted to legalise gay marriage, Colorado and Washington legalised recreational use of marijuana, and voters in Wisconsin voted in their first openly gay Senator who is also the State’s first female Senator, Tammy Baldwin. The U.S. also voted in a record number of women to Congress, 20 to the Senate and at least 81 to the House of Representatives, a sign of steady change to the make-up of an overwhelmingly male-dominated Congress.

The changing nature of political communication

President Obama’s 2008 campaign was notable for its innovative use of social media, as his team used social media to not only create a political brand and raise funds but to also engage with and create relationships with the wider public. Their use of social media allowed for a seeming level of intimacy between President Obama and the wider public. Armed with databases of millions of supporters’ details garnered from the 2008 election, the 2012 Obama campaign took social media use further, changing the nature of political communication. This time around the Obama campaign faced savvy social media campaigners in the Romney camp, unlike in 2008 where Twitter was a fledgling platform and Facebook had yet to truly ramp up users, giving the Obama campaign an edge through accessing these ‘new’ platforms.

The 2012 Obama campaign were able to target voters and volunteers through their technology system including Election Day updates from various states. The Obama team number-crunched various possible scenarios of election outcomes, they engaged with social media using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs and a host of other platforms, and used them effectively to respond to smear campaigns through this medium. In terms of engagement with social media the Obama campaign far outranked the Romney campaign – with over 23 million Twitter followers compared to nearly two million; over 29 million Facebook likes compared to nearly eight million; over 42 000 Pinterest followers of Michelle Obama compared to Ann Romney’s 12 000; over 1.4 million Instagram followers compared to 38 000.

The Obama campaign took on board the fundamentals of social media and engaged people and participated in discussion, rather than simply using social media as a broadcast tool. Exit polls on Election Day revealed that the youth vote comprised nearly 20 per cent of the overall vote with 60 per cent of youth voting for President Obama. This very high level of youth engagement can be attributed to the Obama campaign’s social media tactics. One of the innovative ways in which the campaign encouraged youth voter turnout was to create a Facebook app that allowed the campaign to access the friends list of those who signed up to it. The campaign would then encourage the person who signed up to the app to share targeted campaign and voting information with their friends.

Over at the Romney campaign team, they were excited about and talking up a tool designed to coordinate volunteers at key polling places and enable them to provide information back to the Romney camp in real-time. This poll-monitoring system was named ORCA, and would operate in a similar fashion to a smartphone app. The data would be relayed from volunteers on the ground to campaign headquarters where phone banks of people would be ready to make a last minute flurry of calls to encourage voter turnout in relevant states. However, on Election Day the system was inundated and crashed for periods of time. For many volunteers the system didn’t work at all meaning that information wasn’t relayed back as expected. Unfortunately for the Romney campaign team, the system didn’t perform on the day as expected.

 As well as each campaign’s direct engagement tactics, there were many instances of responses to the campaigns going ‘viral’ in the social media sphere.

On the last day of the Republican National Convention just prior to Governor Romney’s speech accepting the nomination, actor Clint Eastwood gave a speech where he spoke to an empty chair representing President Obama. An hour after Governor Romney’s speech the Obama campaign tweeted a photo of the President in a chair with the words ‘This seat’s taken’. The tweet went viral, and was retweeted about 20 000 times within three hours.

During the second presidential debate Governor Romney answered a question about pay inequality using an example of his time in office and used the phrase ‘binders full of women’. Within hours a Tumblr site was running with people posting memes mocking the phrase.

 On election night when it became clear that President Obama had won the election, the Obama campaign tweeted a photo of the President hugging Michele Obama with the words ‘Four more years’. This tweet broke records being retweeted over 729 000 times and had over 1.3 million likes on Facebook by the next morning.

Social media provides the opportunity for the community at large to engage with political messages beyond that which is directed by campaign teams. Whether a campaign team is successful in their use of social media is highly dependent on the wider community being willing participants and willing consumers of campaign messages. If campaign messages do not win favour with the public, they are more than willing to re-construct messages to create new and often disruptive, conversations that often go viral.

 It is evident that the Obama campaign used social media and technology in unprecedented and innovative ways. They not only embraced the changing nature of political communication but also helped shape it.

Upcoming event

 Dr. John Hart, Reader in Political Science, Australian National University will be presenting his take on the US Presidential election results on Wednesday 28 November 2012 at 12.30pm in the Library Conference Room. Senators, Members, their staff and others in Parliament House are welcome to attend.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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