Was Campaign 2012 won on the Web?
Politico’s Playbook blog, stewarded by Mike Allen, offers some interesting tidbits about the “shadow campaign” conducted on the Web during 2012:
[Obama Super PAC] Priorities USA had a laser focus during the presidential election: to define Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch, super-rich, ruthless business profiteer … The pro-Obama super PAC accomplished this [by] targeting certain groups of Web users, buying search terms on Twitter and Google like ‘47 percent’ and ‘dressage,’ and airing attack ads featuring laid-off workers … Priorities, [co-founded] by former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton, had a fraction of Rove, Romney or Obama’s funding. Still … its anti-Romney videos were among … the [cycle’s] most effective and memorable … The winning strategy … involved less money, but a bigger focus on the Web … and a dedication to going negative. …
(Emphasis mine.) A “dedication to going negative?” Imagine that. And here we had President Obama endlessly complaining that evil Super PACs were going to launch a well-funded tidal wave of negative ads against him! It’s funny how he got that backwards, isn’t it?
As the Politico blog goes on to note, the Romney-aligned Crossorads group tried to do the same thing, buying up Internet search terms and Twitter hashtags, but clearly the Obama team was far more effective, and more vicious. I would repeat a bit of advice to wanna-be Republican campaign consultants for 2016: do not fool yourselves into thinking you can get away with the kind of campaign Obama ran. The media will not let you produce the Republican equivalent of the “Mitt Romney killed my wife” or even “Mitt Romney is a tax cheat” campaigns without terminal blowback.
The idea here seems to be that persuadable voters invest some time in searching the Internet for news about the candidates, and their attention can be captured by seizing control of particular search terms. It helps if a curious term like “47 percent” or “dressage” can be pushed into the public consciousness, so low-information voters hear them without understanding their exact meaning, and proceed to research them on the Internet. This all happens very quickly. A nimble campaign must be ready to begin influencing search engines and capturing Web traffic within a matter of hours.
I would hazard a guess that the most successful Obama-damaging equivalents from this election cycle would have been “the private sector is doing fine” and “you didn’t build that,” but the mainstream media never reported those gaffes anywhere near as much as conservative alternative media did. If you want to talk about a “conservative media bubble,” let’s discuss the way conservatives underestimate the mainstream media’s incredible ability to bypass important stories that damage their chosen candidate, and how badly the Right underestimated the power of such weaponized ignorance.
Interestingly, Politico caps off these reports with a bit of low-tech contrast, noting that a Democrat political action committee “founded by several operatives close to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid” spent $2 million at the end of the campaign pumping out “direct mail, a field operation, and other under-the-radar activities” to push Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren across the finish line. One of the founders of this committee asserted that the role of Super PACs “in protecting the Senate majority was undeniable.”
That probably means liberal carping about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision will simmer down a bit. And it goes to show that both high-tech online warfare and good old grass-roots campaigning are crucial instruments for electoral victory. Instead, Mitt Romney got Project ORCA, which failed both among the strands of the Web and at the grass roots.