Romney all thumbs when it comes to social media


Obama came to the presidential campaign having revolutionised internet use in elections. He has more than 21 million Twitter followers compared to Romney’s 1.6 million, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

IT’S OFFICIAL: Barack Obama wins the election.

Well, that’s if it were based on a comparison of how adept the two US presidential candidates have been in managing their social media campaigns, and if only the sentiment of social media users were tallied.

While both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are using social media in similar ways – to get out campaign videos, to post images, to highlight issues, to fundraise, and to make themselves come across as more personable – Obama is the dominant force.

On Twitter, Obama has more than 21 million followers, while Romney trails with 1.6 million. On Facebook, more than 31.5 million people have “liked” the president’s page, while 11.5 million have “liked” Romney’s. On YouTube, Obama has about 233,000 followers, while Romney has just 21,000.

Obama’s domination extends even into more personal social media formats such as the photo site Instagram, with 1.5 million people following Obama, while Romney has 68,000.

Even on music site Spotify – where Obama’s playlist features Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and U2 (Even Better Then the Real Thing) and Romney’s, the Kingston Trio, the Beach boys, Roy Orbison and, rather incongruously, the Commodores – about 15,000 people subscribe to rock to Obama’s playlists, while only about 500 opt for Romney’s.

“Obama has been using social media extremely well,” says Dermot Casey, lecturer at UCD Smurfit Business School, founder and chief executive of Tinstring and former chief operations officer and chief technology officer at Storyful – and self-confessed “anorak” about US elections and media campaigns. “He has executed well, and it’s integrated well into his grand campaign.”

Of course, Obama comes to the campaign this year having revolutionised how the internet and social media could be utilised as a crucial element for both campaigning and fundraising back in the 2008 presidential election.

Casey notes Obama already had a massive number of followers on Twitter and Facebook thanks to the legacy of that campaign, and because millions more have engaged with his social media presence in the past four years. He is, after all, the first tweeting president.

“Obama has been banking all those people, to have a [social media] machine this time around. Romney didn’t have that time to put the machine together,” he says, noting that Obama also has had an enormous team of volunteers driving his social media campaigns, alongside a formal strategy group of about 150 based in Chicago,while Romney predominantly has had a smaller hired team.

But even taking that into account, Romney and his campaign team have not demonstrated any great facility with using social media.

“Romney could have done much better on Twitter. Romney has only tweeted about 1,300 times, and he’s only following 274 people,” notes Ciarán McMahon, a social media scientist at, who has advised Irish politicians on social media use. Romney could use Twitter to better effect to try to win over voters that might be undecided, or leaning towards Obama.

McMahon notes, too, that Twitter is not that representative of the US voting population. A recent Pew study suggested that the typical Twitter user is young, female, and liberal. Facebook is a better cross-section of the US population, he says.

While Obama seems to have engaged more on Facebook, going only on the numbers who “like” his page compared to Romney’s, Romney is slightly ahead on the number of people who are actually talking about his posts compared to Obama – slightly over three million, compared to Obama’s 2.7 million.

Talking – meaning people who are reposting and commenting on Romney posts – shows greater involvement with the page then simply “liking” it, and that close tally would seem to better mirror the feeling of the electorate.

The fact that the candidates are on newer services such as Instagram, and their wives on female-leaning Pinterest, shows that “strategists are trying to find the next big thing to get an early advantage effect. It’s probably the idea behind it – that they would be the first in there,” says McMahon.

But does campaigning with social media really matter?

McMahon says it definitely does. Take any two candidates – if one is on social media, and one is not, the one who is not is likely to lose votes to the one who is, he says, if voters are also on social media.

Failing to have a sophisticated social media presence in a US presidential election now, is inconceivable, says Casey. “You’d look foolish – that’s the big risk of not using social media. You’d look incredibly out of touch.”

The US electorate certainly uses social media channels for discussion – post-debate chatter dominated social media. No surprise, then, that both candidates used social media to shape messages around and after each of the recent presidential debates.

But the campaigns have taken social media use into far more sophisticated areas. Both Casey and McMahon note that “big data” – massive databases full of detail that the campaigns gather in about not just electoral regions, but individual voters, thanks to their social media use – is being mined in this election.

This enables very specific, targeted campaigning to both fundraise and to try to sway voters in what looks to be an extremely tight race. “They’re both engaging in data mining to find out who people are, where they live, and what policies are important to them,” says McMahon. “The trend is, more big data and analytics, more use of social media to get statistical data and do number-crunching.”

Irish politicians are likely to study how the big US presidential campaigns used social media this time around, and bring more elements into their own campaigns in future, Casey says.

McMahon notes that Irish campaigns tend to take two or three years to adopt techniques pioneered in the US – meaning we are likely to see much of what has happened in this election in the next general election here. However, he thinks the high costs associated with sophisticated data mining, and our more stringent data protection laws, mean that particular approach is probably out of reach of Irish campaigns.

But he has been working with some politicians to look at using publicly available Central Statistics Office data to similar effect – if not at the individual voter level, such data gives insight into particular regions and can be co-ordinated to likely issues for those voters.

But the use of social media, because it is relatively new, perhaps can be seen to be more important to a campaign than it actually is. Campaigning is still highly traditional, and candidates must carry out the hard slog of campaigning on the ground, attending rallies and fundraisers. Their campaign teams still pour vast amounts of money into more traditional media, creating television, radio and print ads.

Social media is really just another tool in the campaign tool kit, if an important one, says Casey.

“They’re kind of like an exoskeleton that extends your reach.”

By the numbers: How the candidates stack up on social media


Obama31.5m likes. 2.7m, talking

Romney11.5m likes, 3.1m talking


Obama21.5m followers, 7,500 tweets, following 671,000

Romney1.6m followers, 1,300 tweets, following 274





Obama1.5m followers

Romney 68,000 followers


Obama 15,000

Romney 500


Barack Obama:35,500 followers

Michelle Obama:44,500 followers

Mitt Romney2,100 followers

Ann Romney13,600 followers

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