When views means votes

Mitt Romney is chasing Barack Obama in the polls – and in the battle to win the web. Samuel Muston reports on the digital race to the White House

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The Independent Online

The appointment of Joe Rospars as digital director of Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008 helped to upend political campaigning in the US. For the first time, digital media was deemed important enough to be granted a seat at the right hand of the candidate. It was to be a separate tool, not just a monkey to the communication office's grinder.

By making cyberspace a frontier of both political persuasion and activation, the Democrats had opened another front in the electoral war. As TV had been for JFK, so online was for Obama: an untested weapon, and one, perhaps more importantly, largely overlooked by his opponents.

Skip four years to late July 2012, and the seeds planted by Rospars are blooming: Obama's YouTube channel, established in 2006 when he was Senator for Illinois, received its 200-millionth view. A month and a half later, that total stands at 223 million views, putting Obama 389th in the most-watched list on YouTube. If 2008 was a birth of online campaigning, this year saw it reach the majority.

Over 500 candidates for office in the US are adding their own efforts to the 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. And since the start of the year, the presidential campaigners spent record amounts online. Obama has put $16.4m into online ads. Mitt Romney has so far spent around $8m. On the face of it, Romney has trailed Obama. Some of his numbers look considerably less favourable. His YouTube has had a mere 20 million views, but the comparison is to some extent facile, because it fails to take into account what goes on behind the screens.

Online campaigning is about much more beyond video, which can very often preach to the converted. Digital campaigning has to be about getting people out of the armchair to help their candidate. "Campaigners are beginning to understand that online campaigning has exponential impact because it not only persuades people to go and physically vote but can also activate them to donate money, volunteer, or even just help spread the word using social media," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, which looks at the intersection between technology and politics.

So far, since January 2011, Obama has pulled in $587m dollars. Crucially, 53 per cent of that has come from small donors, exactly the constituency which a politician wants to capture, and the group which powered Obama to victory at the last election. Romney managed a respectable 22 per cent from small donors.

The President's Twitter account offered further stats this week. In August alone, the campaign raised $114m from more than a million donors. "If you pitched in $5 or $10, it helped; 97.77 per cent of donations in August were $250 or less, for an average of $58.31... 317,954 people who gave to the campaign in August were supporting the Obama organisation for the very first time," the President tweeted.

Two companies have come to dominate the digital campaigning landscape. For the Republicans, it is Targeted Victory; for the Democrats, Blue State Digital. While of different political hue, there are similarities between the two. Their staffs are youthful. "More often than not they are young and [see] technology as central to their world view. They tend to be people who self-identify as members of the 'internet public', who consider it essential to how they live there life," says Rasiej.

The companies themselves were born in very different circumstances. Blue State Digital is the older, more established of the two. It was conceived during Vermont Governor Howard Dean's technologically innovative, but ultimately doomed bid for the presidency in 2004. "Howard's campaign flamed and then burnt out technology-wise," says Gregor Poynton, a political director at Blue State Digital, "but four of his staffers recognised that what had been learnt was transferable."

They were Joe Rospars, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Ben Self and Clay Johnson and they set up Blue State to specialise in helping candidates develop tailored fundraising and voter turnout databases, while also creating social media campaigns and placing online advertising. "Our initial clients were all progressive," says Poynton: they were George Soros's Democrat-mobilising America Coming Together campaign and Walmart Watch.

In 2008, however, they landed the biggest fish: the then Senator for Illinois. Blue State managed to raise $500m and built an online community of millions for Obama. A startling achievement, given that people working for Blue State weren't grey-templed politicos, but young tech professionals.

The corporate culture is more Google than pressured campaign office, even since it was bought by communications behemoth WPP in 2010. "We have a table tennis table in the London office," says Poynton. In Washington, the office with most of their 160 employees in, there are "office pets" and Friday is pancake and waffle day. The computers are Macs. And there is pretty much an open door between Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters and Blue State.

Targeted Victory has a slightly longer roster of clients – 46 in all – but its most prominent is Mitt Romney. It grew from the scorched earth of the Republican campaign of 2008. Founded by 28-year-olds Michael Beach and another RNC staffer Zac Moffatt (who now earns $158,125 working directly for Romney) in February 2009, it was set up to look after candidates' entire online output, "covering everything: advertising [they create the ads which spring from the screen when your cursor goes over them], fundraising, website creation – everything under one roof," says Beach.

Their advantage was clear from early on, says Beach: they could speak both tech and politicalese (something relatively rare in Republican circles). "I was national field director for the Republicans National Convention in 2008 – so it was the perfect training ground from which to grab able people."

Currently Beach's firm employs 55 people, most of whom are in their mid-twenties, most are techies. All are Republicans.

The office atmosphere is laid-back, though focused, according to Beach. "We are very collaborative. No one has an office. We aim to keep a West-coast start-up feel, we aren't at all stuffy." People who visit them say that they have that dot-com boom edginess to them. More a young Ebay, less Young Conservatives.

What is the real value of engaging either company then? Trackability. They allow their respective candidates to check up on the effectiveness of their efforts, in a way unmatched by traditional methods. "In the past, marketing was quite finger in the air and hope it works but what we do is measurable," says Poynton. "You can see what works and what doesn't. You can quantitatively assess who is responding to emails, who is donating. And if it isn't working you change it. You can fine-tune and compare, too. So send one email with a certain picture and another with another and then see which works best."

So is the future of campaigning online? Is the doorstep and school hall likely to become ever more redundant? Andre Rasiej believes so: "The future of political persuasion will be digital because it has become the way of the world in every other arena of our lives. Technology is beginning to reveal the new currency of networks."

Greg Poynton sounds a warning though: "If you have a strong message, it can amplify it. But ultimately you need that. It's not a silver bullet."

Either way, as is the way with such things, when the general election comes around here, we'll all likely to reap the harvest of the success and failures of Joe Rospars' involvement in Obama's campaign. Whether the blizzard of tweets, emails and Facebooks messages from Teams Cameron and Miliband is something to look forward to, however, is another matter entirely.