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Election 2012: It's Not Facebook. It's the Data, Stupid.

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, April 20 2011

Now that President Obama, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty have all declared their intentions to run for President in 2012 and rolled out their initial campaign websites, and another leading contender, Sarah Palin, has also unveiled a revamped website for her political operation, SarahPac, it's possible to begin sketching the contours of the 2012 election online. And so far, the inside-the-beltway political media is missing the big story. It's not Facebook. It's the data, stupid.

Unlike in 2008, when reporters had to be led by the nose to cover the Internet's emergence as the central battlefield of the campaign, this time around no one needs any convincing. Neither do the campaigns. Compared to past elections, when the Internet was seen primarily as a source of easy-to-get campaign contributions and having a big email list was considered the equivalent of obtaining an online ATM, this time around everyone finally appears to understand that real relationships with voters are what drive volunteer engagement in campaigns, and it's that kind of stake-building that turns people who are casually interested in a candidate into door-knockers and repeat donors.

So far, most of the early media coverage of the tech side of 2012 has been emphasizing the value to candidates of using social media like Twitter and making friends on Facebook. If anything, after years of downplaying the power of voter-centered hubs like political blogs and social networks, the mainstream media now seems certain that this cycle's presidential contest will be, at least in part, driven by how well a candidate is doing being social online. But in doing so, they're overstating how much Republicans have supposedly closed the tech gap with the Democrats, glossing over some crucial facts about how big platforms like Facebook actually work, and thus delivering a deceptive picture that obscures some very significant advantages currently held by the Obama campaign.

To wit, the Los Angeles Times headline: "Twitter, Facebook and YouTube now crucial to presidential campaigns." National Journal concurs with a headline reading, "Candidates Vie to Star in 'The Social Network,' 2012 Edition." Says Los Angeles Times writer Seema Mehta, "Social media have become a defining force in modern-day politics," arguing that the Tea Party movement and Republican Scott Brown's rapid rise in the 2010 Massachusetts Senate race were due to successful use of "social media connections" and implying that these will buoy the Republicans nationally as well. In "Republicans Sharpening Online Tools for 2012," Jennifer Preston reports today in the New York Times, "During last year’s midterm elections, Republicans caught up with Democrats in using technology and social networks, and now many Republicans elected to the House and Senate are using these tools more than Democrats," she observes. Again the message is that the two sides have reached a rough parity.

Some are going even further, taking the increased adoption of online networking tools and sites by Republicans as a sign of Obama's vulnerability. So argued Byron Tau in Politico last week. "Email and blogs have been declared passe," he wrote. With "everyone" on Facebook, Tau argued, "Obama’s re-election campaign, as well as those of his Republican challengers, will have to engage in these well-known and heavily-trafficked social media spaces much, much more - thereby ceding some message control and risking the potential complications of more unscripted interaction with voters."

Well, let me beg to differ. Based on conversations I've had with a range of Republican and Democratic online political strategists over the past few weeks, the conventional wisdom of the moment is wrong. Facebook and other third-party social network platforms aren't the central battlefield. It's data and targeting and figuring out how to use online strategies to enable motivated volunteers to identify, persuade and get out the vote.

The truth is that in the sure-to-be hard-fought election of 2012, Obama has two current advantages. He starts off with a huge lead in online infrastructure--a massive installed base, if you will--and thus in useful data. Even if his 13-million-member email list has gotten old and open rates have declined, which they undoubtedly have, he still towers above the rest of the field in the raw size of his contactable base. Nothing that any of the Republicans currently entering the presidential contest are doing online comes close. No one else, for example, has a platform (aka myBO), where supporters are enabled to create their own blog, fundraising page, or organize house parties or online groups--and where all the resulting engagement data provides the campaign's managers with an incredible trove of information about people's level of interest and activity.

The nearest candidate to Obama in technological sophistication is Pawlenty, who has a watered-down social engagement platform built by EngageDC called "Multiply" that gives supporters points for doing things like connecting their Facebook or Twitter accounts to the campaign.

One reason for the tech gap is money. As one veteran Republican online strategist said to me, "People forget how much it cost to develop [my.BO]." Estimates range in the millions, which were incurred over years as the Blue State Digital team kept improving a model that started as DeanSpace in 2003 and saw improvements as the DNC's PartyBuilder and ProgressNow's community engagement platform. "I clearly doubt if any of the Republican contenders would have the money to develop such a thing," this strategist added. The RNC could have invested in spurring the development of such a platform in the last few years, but its priorities were apparently elsewhere.

Facebook's Limitations and Potential
Social network platforms like Facebook are of course important, both as gateways for campaigns to find potential supporters and for supporters to in turn influence their friends, but they're hardly the ideal environment for political organizing or, more critically, for gathering the data that will really enable campaigns to micro-target effectively. While owners of Facebook pages may brag about how many "likes" they've gotten, you can't even find out the most basic kinds of engagement data from Facebook, such as which people are seeing a feed item or clicking on an internal link. Facebook does give page administrators access to analytics telling them which stories are most liked on their site, how many users commented on a post, and their general demographics, but the information is all anonymized and aggregated. So far, only the Obama and Pawlenty campaigns appear to understand this crucial fact.

Consider the "Are you in" Facebook application that was part of the President's campaign launch last week. On its face, it's a spiffy tool that enables Obama supporters to not only declare their support for the President's re-election, but immediately displays a list of which of their friends are also on board, and helpfully invites them to reach out to other friends. But under the surface, something even more powerful is going on. The first time you use the app, it asks for your permission to adds your basic information (things like name, picture, gender, networks, your list of friends, and "any other information" you've left open for sharing on Facebook. It also seeks permission for your birthday, your current city, and the ability to send you email and post to your wall. (Some of these features can be shut off, but most are required by the app.)

The Pawlenty campaign asks for all of that when you sign up for PawlentyAction, but also wants the ability to post to your wall and access posts on your news feed. Creepy. I tried to find the "terms of service" for Pawlenty's Facebook app but the page appears to be blank. With some hunting around on your Facebook privacy settings, you can look up what actual information an app has sought from you recently; according to Facebook's rules for usage of its API, this information is not supposed to be stored or saved for more than 24 hours. It remains to be seen whether the campaigns are actually abiding by that rule.

Why is this kind of behind-the-scenes integration so valuable? "So now, Obama can, for example, query his list to send a message to every self identified Democratic female 35 and older on Facebook with over 500 friends and get them to take action based on republican attacks to destroy Planned Parenthood," one veteran Democratic online strategist told me. "Or cut their list based on self-identified male Republicans in New York City and send a message to them from a sender who may resonate, like Mike Bloomberg," he added. So far, about 125,000 people have given the Obama campaign permission to access their Facebook data; the Pawlenty campaign has about one-tenth that number.

All of the Republican consultants I talked to admitted that, for the most part, their side has not yet mastered how to collect and integrate the all the rich social data that Obama's team is sitting on thanks to its ownership of myBO plus its integration of Facebook data. "The problem is that they don't understand the level of tech needed to do myBO," one conservative developer told me, bemoaning the current conversation within Republican campaign circles. "They talk about it, but when it comes to engineering something at that level, they don't understand it." He added, "The tech people are generally leftists, they're not Republicans generally. On the Republican side, you have a lot of tech-oriented marketing people, not people who understand coding."

Furthermore, while tallying up Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers can't hurt anyone, those sorts of numbers don't automatically translate into volunteers on the ground. Another Republican online strategist told me, "The idea is to capture data for the sake of mobilizing - and the point of mobilizing is to get our activists talking to persuadable voters by phone or door.  Too often, people think the idea of capturing data is to persuade, but the problem with this is that fence-sitters don't go to campaign websites and sign up to be on email lists.  Plus, even if I were to capture a lot of data of fence sitters, I'd rather approach them with my volunteer at their door than with a banner ad."

Said my first conservative developer source, "This campaign will be more about micro-targeting than every before, and not just potential voters, but potential precinct walkers. You can get 500 Facebook messages a day or emails, but how many people will knock on your door?" Such nuances may not matter as much for "movement"-style candidates like Palin, if she actually runs. Like Obama in 2008, Palin more than any other Republican has figured out how to use new media to communicate directly to her base, bypassing the media filter. But in a close race, being able to generate fine-tuned lists for volunteers to use in door-knocking could move the vote by several percentage points. And for that, you want as much data as possible about who they are and what they like.

Many other factors will undoubtedly shape the 2012 race, including the role of outside groups, the wild-card impact of voter-generated content, the fact that the Republican field is fragmented and relatively weak, and the actual trajectory of the primary calendar--all of which may favor late entrants who may benefit from the volatility of internet-charged politics. And Obama is clearly no longer in the position of building an insurgent-style organization; he's asking voters for continuity, not change, after all. But all of that is for discussion later on. Right now, in the early days of the race, if we're looking hard at the role of the Internet and technology on the election, the advantage has to go to the team with the most strategic depth and technological sophistication.