The Obama campaigns both in 2008 and 2012 have been heralded as gathering an enormous amount of small-dollar donations compared to presidential campaigns preceding them. Throughout both campaigns, these donations swelled to make up for a significant portion of the President’s campaign funding. For a candidate who was able to raise such a significant amount of money from small-dollar donations, it means that Obama was working a crowd of larger followers than his opponents, who received larger donations from fewer numbers of people, in both election years.
A study from the Publius Project shows that the Obama campaign attracted people across various demographics, with 59 percent women, 17 percent Latino, and 44 percent that identified as non-white. Additionally, Obama supporters were overall less experienced on the campaign trail than that of McCain supporters in 2008. While 90 percent of McCain supporters had voted in the 2004 election and 59 percent reported having worked for a campaign in previous years, only 80 percent of Obama supporters had voted in 2004 and only 26 percent had ever worked for a campaign.
In 2012, donor demographics concerning campaign funding for Romney and Obama reveals that Obama enjoyed support from a much higher number of females than that of his Republican opponent. While the number of male donors in the candidates’ campaigns lined up fairly evenly (Romney had about 30,000 more than Obama), the number of female donors leaned heavily toward Obama’s side. While the Romney campaign received only 28.2 percent of its donations from females, the Obama campaign received almost half of its donations from females, notably in small-dollar donations. This stark contrast resulted in Obama receiving nearly $20 million more than the Romney campaign, just in the arena of donations under $1,000 made by females.
Romney Campaign: Male vs. Female Donors
Obama Campaign: Male vs. Female Donors
The deeper question behind all of this, however, is what the Obama campaign did differently to mobilize such a large number of people, especially those who never felt compelled to be involved with campaigns in previous election years. The answer seems to be very clear — Barack Obama’s campaign team recognized the vital role that social media could play in mobilizing voters, and it succeeded in using these media tools to its advantage.
In Rahaf Harfoush’s book, Yes We Did!: An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand, he delves into all of the components of my.barackobama.com, the website used to mobilize citizens during the 2008 election. Commonly referred to as “MyBO,” the site ended up with more than three million registered accounts, all equipped with tools to help mobilize for Obama. MyBO was constructed to make any internet user, no matter how unknowledgeable about social media, be able to easily navigate to places where he could donate, fundraise, or volunteer. Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s co-founders, left the company to join the Obama campaign as the Director of Online Organizing; as a result, the campaign had at its fingertips the expertise that produced the most successful social media site today. Harfoush touches on several key aspects of the site that made it so user-friendly, the first being the personalized construction of each user’s account. Upon registering, each person had their own dashboard, profile, action center, fundraising, network, and sidebar.
Moreover, the website allowed for users to connect with people who shared the same interests, which resulted in groups such as Electricians for Obama (occupation), Texas for Obama (location), and Women for Obama (demographic). The new media team also announced that members of Obama’s policy team would respond to any questions or concerns proposed by users, which displays another way in which the campaign used social media to engage with the public. All of these factors together mobilized a large number of people, a majority of which would have most likely taken a much more apathetic stance to both campaigns.
Given that there is such a strong correlation between an increased use of social media tools and small-dollar donations, it can be argued that there is a causal relationship between the two. The aforementioned study from the Publius Project also revealed that in 2008, 82 percent of Obama supporters donated money online in comparison to 64 percent of McCain supporters, which in part is assumed to be a result of Obama’s site being more user-friendly. However, it is important to note that these discrepancies may also be a result of Obama’s appeal to the younger voters as well as the campaign’s stronger persistency in soliciting donations via e-mail.
All of this comes together to show that not only does the use of social media solicit a larger number of donations, but more importantly it gathers a larger number of supporters and helps the campaign gain momentum. The new media teams of the Obama campaigns both in 2008 and 2012 were highly successful in using social media tools to their benefit, and it will be interesting to see if the Republican Party makes better use of these tools in 2016.