No Strong Evidence Romney Is Beating Obama in Digital Media

Despite claims by his campaign, a look at available metrics shows President Obama is actually outdoing Romney.

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Simon Owens is an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. He can be reached at sowens@usnews.com

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.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

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:

  1. We don't have access to each campaign Facebook page's "reach." This is the number of unique people who have seen a page's content, and it's a much more important metric than the raw number of "likes" on a page, since it measures how many people actually saw your message. It's only available to those who have administrative access to the page's analytics.
  2. We don't have access to social media click-through data. In other words, when Romney links to his Web site from Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr, how many people actually click on that link? Conversely, how much social media referral traffic do MittRomney.com and other campaign Web sites receive?
  3. Given the granularity of targeting on Facebook, Google, and other digital platforms, reporters likely see less than 1 percent of the ads that are deployed online by a campaign. The Romney campaign could be producing brilliant Medicare ads aimed at seniors in Florida and you'd never see them because you're not a senior and don't live in Florida.
  4. We don't see the conversion rates of fundraising E-mails, nor do we even see many of the targeted fundraising E-mails that are sent out.
  5. [See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

    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?