Digital dash to the White House: Views mean votes in the presidential video war

Mitt Romney is chasing Barack Obama in the polls – and in the battle to win the web.

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 embracing the intangible and making cyberspace a frontier of both political persuasion and activation, the Democrats had opened another front in the electoral war. As television had been for JFK, 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, which was established in 2006 when he was a Senator in Illinois, received its 200 millionth view. That total now stands at 227 million views, putting Obama 389th in the most-watched list on YouTube, a gratifying 18 places and some eight million views in front of the boyband One Direction. If 2008 was the birth of online campaigning, this year saw it reach the majority.

More than 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 candidates have spent record amounts online. Obama has put $16.4m (£10m) into online ads (last year's total was an eighth of that, $2m). His competitor, 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 the unseen activity, what that goes on behind the screens. Online campaigning is about much more beyond video, which can often preach to the converted. Digital campaigning has to be about getting people out of the armchair and helping 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. Crucially, 53 percent of that has come from small donors – which is exactly the constituency a politician wants to capture and is the group that powered Obama to victory at the last election. Romney managed a respectable 22 per cent from small donors.

Obama (or his people, at least) took to the President's Twitter account this week to offer further stats. In August alone the campaign had raised $114m from more than a million donors, he said. "If you pitched in $5 or $10, it helped," he said. "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."

To achieve this, both sides have their favoured technological aides-de-camp. Two companies have come to dominate the digital-campaigning landscape as the focus of campaigning has moved from the doorstep to the computer screen. 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 share one characteristic in particular: youth. "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," Rasiej says. But they are not hired guns. You have to believe in the cause to pull in the six-figure salaries.

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 Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. "Howard's campaign flamed and then burnt out technology-wise," Gregor Poynton, a political director at Blue State Digital, says. "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 place online advertising. "Our initial clients were all progressive," Poynton says. They were George Soros's Democrat-mobilising America Coming Together campaign and Walmart Watch.

In 2008, however, Blue State 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 we play in the London office," Poynton says. In Washington, the office that houses most of their 160 employees, there are "office pets" and Friday is pancake-and-waffle day. The computers are Macs. And there is pretty much an open door with Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters.

Targeted Victory has a slightly longer roster of clients – 46 in all – but its most prominent is 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 has earned more than $158,125 working for Romney) in February 2009, it was set up to look after candidates' entire online output, "covering everything: advertising [it creates the ads that spring from the screen when your cursor goes over them], fundraising, website creation – everything under one roof," Beach says, adding that their advantage was clear from early on: they could speak both tech and politcalese (something relatively rare in Republican circles). "I was national field director for the Republican National Convention in 2008 – so it was the perfect training ground from which to grab able people," Beach says. Currently his firm employs 55 people, most of whom are in the mid-20s and techies. All are Republicans.

The office atmosphere is laid-back, though focused, Beach says. "We are very collaborative. No one has an office," he says. "We aim to keep a West-Coast start-up feel, we aren't at all stuffy." People who visit them explain 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 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," Poynton says. "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? 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."

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 reap the harvest of the successes and failures of Rospars' involvement in Obama's campaign.

Whether the blizzards of tweets, emails and Facebook messages from teams Cameron and Miliband is something to look forward to, however, is another matter entirely.

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