Social media is irrelevant in this election. You may have read otherwise. You may believe otherwise. But it’s true. By labelling social media irrelevant, I don’t mean to say that it hasn’t had some impact, but its effects have been negligible and unmeasurable. Come November I suspect many people will find opportunities to find correlation between trends and the electoral results. I also suspect that they won’t be able to attribute those electoral changes tangibly back to conversion by any social media channels.
Dating back to 1824, the average winning candidate has won slightly over 50% of the popular vote, with a margin of victory of slightly over 4%. According to the fivethirtyeight blog, President Obama currently has a 74% chance of winning, with a projected 50.3% of the popular vote (margin of victory at 1.7%). His projected 55% take of the electoral college is a bit lower than the average of 70% dating back to 1824, but is similar to electoral college victories by John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and both of George W. Bush’s victories. Bear that in mind and I’ll tie it back to social media in a bit.
The latest and greatest
Vocus presented some findings this week showing that Mitt Romney is leading Barack Obama in expressed political sentiment, beginning from the first Presidential debate. They contrast this finding with Pew Research (which is actually a study from earlier in the summer), differentiating their findings by how they filter the messages.
So, here you have two organizations presenting conflicting data points and trying to show causation to the election (though to Vocus’ credit the mention that the uptick for Romney may simply be a reflection of current events). How do you make sense of the conflict?
You first have to buy into the idea that social media content can sway an election to some degree. If you don’t buy that argument, then different interpretation of data shouldn’t cause you to make broad assumptions about the state of either campaign.
My cure for the common cold
Imagine I have a naturopathic cure for the common cold (This is hypothetical, so please don’t try this at home). Here’s what it entails:
Take 200 mg of Acetaminophen, 30-50 mg of Vitamin A and take 30-50 mg of Vitamin C.
How does the cure work you might ask? That’s a good question. We actually don’t know if it will work, but if it cures your cold (and we think it has about a 50/50 chance), then we can take a look back retroactively to try to determine how it worked.
But one thing’s evident: the vitamin C is really important. Despite the fact that there is no evidence to support it, despite the fact that many colds have been cured without it, because I include Vitamin C in the recipe is proof of its importance.
As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s the same line of reasoning that people use for the importance of social media in this election cycle.
In Ohio, the candidates and their surrogates have spent about $172 million dollars in advertising. This is about $20 per potential voter (18+). This doesn’t include staff, digital, and many other advertising expenditures. Meanwhile, you have people discussing the candidates through social media channels, the most prevalent being Facebook. A Facebook fan is estimated to be worth between $3-13 to any brand. Because of the duration of the campaigns and the fatigue from overexposure maybe you generously say that exposure in any Facebook channel is worth $3 in advertising for a campaign.
There’s no tangible evidence showing that a small amount of Facebook exposure is as effective as massive amounts of traditional media exposure. The scale, reach and frequency in this campaign is so overwhelmingly focused on traditional media and email that labelling this election a “social media” election is a little silly.
Does social media cause divorce?
A few months ago a series of reports came out that implied that social media use causes divorce. The trouble with that claim was that the divorce rate remains static. If there’s no change in the divorce rate, what is social media causing? Nothing. Not to say that people aren’t catching their spouses on social media doing bad things – it’s just not causing divorce.
In this election, the popular numbers and the electoral numbers (stated above)aren’t out of the ordinary. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that Romney’s inefficient media buys have negated any financial benefits that his campaign enjoys. So, advertising being somewhat equitable, this election seems less about the media itself and more about how the campaigns have used those media channels to perpetuate their messages and mobilize their support.
Theoretically, social media is probably a small contributing factor to mobilize and perpetuate political messages. But because of its scale relative to the heavy machinery that each campaign deploys, it’s unlikely that social is making a huge impact on sentiment or mobilization.
But if you’re still not convinced, wait until November 7th. There will be a multitude of writers to tell you how important
Vitamin C social media is to political victory. Just remember that the winning candidate will have spent upwards of $1 billion dollars to complement their extraordinary, game-changing social media mobilization.
Just found out Romney wants to ban porn. Now I hate him even more. Porn rules.
— John Prior (@john_prior1) October 27, 2012
Obama campaign had to cancel a fundraiser after Hurricane Sandy knocked out the power – just in case you thought God was an undecided voter.
— Dennis Miller Show (@DennisDMZ) October 26, 2012