How the Digital Culture Elects a President

The latest poll numbers show Obama with a small but steady lead over Mitt Romney, but according to a recent report by MIT’s Technology Review, social media has become a more pervasive and crucial indicator–perhaps trumping polls. If online indicators are indeed more accurate, it will be good news for Obama and even better news for Twitter, Facebook, and the creators of online apps.

Twitter: Not Just for Techies Anymore
The Arab Spring has already shown us that the revolution will be tweeted. And it looks like the presidential election will, too. Twitter has 140 million U.S. users–more than 30 million of whom joined in 2012 alone–and it’s the perfect tool for driving political activism. By ranking followers based on frequency of tweeting, and frequency with which their tweets are further distributed, it’s possible to seed messages that tip into traditional media.

Facebook: The Kevin Bacon Effect Writ Large
“In some states elected officials are only one degree of ‘friend’ separation from nearly every Facebook account holder in that state,” says J. D. Schlough, a Democratic political strategist. Social media gives voters a voice. Back in 2008, the Obama campaign actively targeted GenY voters, amassing Twitter followers as a byproduct. In 2012, Twitter users are commenting on the campaign on a 24/7 cycle that leaves traditional media breathless.

Unique Visits Tell the Story
President Obama’s social graph is formidable. According to Nielsen, BarackObama.com had 6.4 million unique visitors in August 2012, reaching 2.9 percent of Americans who were online that month. MittRomney.com had 3.3 million unique visitors during that time, about 1.5 percent of the American online population. Same deal on mobile. Obama’s official app and mobile website had 1.8 million unique users during August. Mitt Romney mobile apps had only 881,000 unique U.S. users. Digital assets allow campaigns to spread messages quickly and efficiently across social networks. They also connect influencers to each other–a critical success factor for marketing any brand. Obama supporters can visit his site and meet with other supporters offline to host house parties for the debates.

The “radiance” factor
More important than the presidential hopefuls’ online reach, is the reach of their key supporters–not celebrities, but radiants. They are real people with Klout scores between 50 and 70. They tweet original content and are re-tweeted often. Active across platforms, radiant influencers have concentric broadcast capability without the branding baggage of celebrities. On social media platforms, radiant digerati hold sway. They not only converse, they recruit their friends and cultivate communities through shared values. Savvy marketers and political pundits alike are tracking these influential users. Bluefin Labs, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been shepherding a list of 400 to 500 most politically influential people on Twitter, but has yet to analyze them, reports MIT’s Technology Review.

Social media is changing the way politicians persuade voters. In a democracy, electoral politics is a bellwether of cultural change. As the influence of digital culture rises, the marketing of political candidates will be waged not in battleground states, but online and via mobile apps.