Did you hear the news? Mitt Romney's digital and social media team is trouncing President Barack Obama's. We know this because, well, Romney's campaign says so. Speaking to Mashable's Alex Fitzpatrick (whose work I admire), Romney's digital director Zac Moffatt stated that "Obama's campaign is still running their Facebook campaign like it's 2008." He later said, "I think our online ad team is superior to theirs." This claim that Romney and other conservatives are beating Obama on digital media has popped up in several recent articles. "Romney campaign claims to be closing gap in social media battle," a Fox News headline blares. "The Left Is Getting Clobbered on Twitter," says the conservative Powerline.
The only problem? None of these articles offers up more than anecdotal evidence to back these claims. For the Mashable piece, at no point does Moffatt provide even a single data point to defend his assertions. When you consider the fact that, when asked about its digital strategy, the official response from the Obama campaign is "no comment," you can see why these kinds of articles creep into the news cycle. When you have only one side willing to brag, then you have no counterpoint with which to assess both sides.
Incidentally, the New York Times published an excellent piece last weekend on this very subject. Titled, "Why Campaign Reporters Are Behind the Curve," it details how reporters have absolutely no access to the increasingly sophisticated statistical modeling data campaigns employ in their marketing and strategy. Not only that, but even if reporters did have access, they don't have the background in statistics needed to understand the data. As Sasha Issenberg, its author, put it:
Breathless, and often fact-free, stories about "data mining" and "microtargeting" soon became plentiful. But few journalists had access to any of the campaigns' data, or even much understanding of the statistical techniques they used. We found ourselves at the mercy of self-promoting consultants who described how they were changing politics by ignoring stodgy old demographics and instead pinpointing voters according to their lifestyles. We played along, guilelessly imputing new mythic powers to microtargeting. In many retellings, data analysis became the reason George W. Bush was re-elected.
This especially applies to social media. Consider the amount of data we don't have access to:
The list goes on. Viewed through this lens, it becomes increasingly obvious that a certain amount of skepticism is appropriate for when campaigns make claims about an opponent's digital strategy. There's no doubt in my mind that Moffatt wouldn't allow one of his employees to engage in a strategy without showing data demonstrating its efficacy. So why should we let Moffatt off the hook for the exact same thing?