by Lisa Peyton

WHY was Obama’s campaign SO effective? I recently ran across two quotes that answer that question and have much broader implications for the future of digital media.  The first was from Pamela Rutledge, in her article ‘How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential campaign’. She summed it up this way, “An effective social media campaign is based on the psychology of social behaviors NOT the current technology” (Rutledge, p. 2013). was able to take advantage of new technologies surrounding online social networks in order to enable Obama supporters to connect and build social relationships. The second quote was from the Handbook of mobile communication studies, chapter 17 by Howard Rheingold. He eloquently puts it this way:

Communication technologies and literacies possess a power that has, on many occasions, proven mightier than physical weaponry — the potential to amplify, leverage, transform, and shift political power by enabling people to persuade and inform the thoughts and beliefs of others.

Obama recruited a variety of tools that allowed his supporters to easily find and inform undecided voters.

Recruiting Advocates

one of the most powerful tools was the ‘Neighbor to Neighbor’ campaign. The Obama team effectively launched ‘Neighbor to Neighbor’ canvassing that enabled supporters to easily find and connect with undecided voters via walk and call lists. These lists were organized under a personalized dashboard that walked the user through the entire process. Not only was the campaign taking advantage of the free labor of volunteers to carry out this work, it also carried the power of ‘word of mouth’ or 3rd party validation. In other words, Obama wasn’t pushing his own message; it was coming from his supporters. By allowing volunteers to connect with undecided voters or neighbors with whom they ALREADY had a relationship, a positive outcome was much more likely. Research has demonstrated what has been dubbed the ‘foot-in-the-door’ phenomenon which indicates that social influence occurs when interpersonal relationships are present (Joinson, A., chap. 18, 2007). was also able to capitalize on social influence by hosting over 20,000 online groups. These groups brought together self-identified supporters that also had other criteria in common like geographic location, profession, hobbies and interests. By allowing supporters to participate in online communities via an identifiable profile, they were more likely to succumb to group norms and comply with campaign demands (Joinson, A., chap. 18, 2007).

Behavioral Targeting Trumps Traditional Ad Buys

During the 2012 election social technologies had come of age and the Obama’s campaign manager described the campaign as “the most data-driven campaign ever” (Rutenberg, J, 2013). Success was also driven by advanced methods of targeting undecided voters using data from social sources and finding the BEST vehicle to deliver the campaign message. In a fascinating NY Times article, Rutenberg dives into the dirty details around how the Obama tech team was able to provide such accurate and efficient targeting. The article describes campaign staffers sifting through self-described supporters Facebook pages in search of friends who might be on the campaign’s list of most persuadable voters. They would then try to determine how close the connection was and recruit the supporter to contact their Facebook friend. These same means were leveraged to provide micro-targeting techniques for huge TV ad buys, saving the campaign millions of dollars by spending less but reaching a more qualified audience.

Unfair Advantage?

This data-driven campaigning does raise the question: Does having access to the data give an unfair advantage? Established political parties and incumbants have ALWAYS had an advantage in our system. I campaigned for Jerry Brown for President back in the early 90’s and the established democratic pick – Clinton – used every trick in the book to thwart our efforts. The two party system in the US has always granted HUGE advantages to those two parties – like easily getting on the ballot.

I would posit that technology is now shifting the paradigm of those advantages a bit. Perhaps not opening up the floodgates for 3rd parties but allowing for the more fringe elements of the major parties to organize and be heard. Clearly Obama outpaced both Romney and McCain when it came to using technology. The long-established offline benefits of being an established candidate such as large corporate donors, paid (local) campaign staffers and national ad campaigns were trumped by a more bottom-up approach that was enabled by social media.

In the end, Obama won out by understanding the underlying psychological social needs that are met by social network sites and leveraging them to help spread the word. He also recruited a team of data analysts that were able to use the data afforded by social platforms to micro-target undecided and persuadable voters. Facebook allowed the campaign access to huge amounts of data, presumably for the ‘good’ cause of informing voters, etc. This does make one ask how such tactics could be used for far more nefarious purposes by groups that aren’t as malevolent. Several of Obama’s tech team have been hired by private firms post-election, most notably Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Any bets on whether or not Facebook will allow THEM access to information about who has ‘liked’ the gamblers anonymous page? ;-)


Joinson, A. (Ed.). (2007). Oxford handbook of internet psychology. Oxford University Press.

Katz, J. E. (2008). Handbook of mobile communication studies. The MIT Press.

Rutenberg, J. (2013). Data You Can Believe In The Obama Campaign’s Digital Masterminds Cash In

Rutledge, P. (2013). How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign