Now that the race is on between President Obama and Mitt Romney, an unprecedented media war has begun.
We've seen big media battles before. But in money, in woman- and man-hours, and in technical and strategic sophistication, this will be the biggest ever. Especially in swing states, there will be television ads from both camps, and from the semi-anonymous political action committees that have become the coin of the 2012 realm.
But that's just the visible war.
Underneath and at the edges, simmering around and through that loud clash of money and images, the digital campaigns will lock horns.
They'll come to you in emails, text messages, classic mail ... and in real live human beings knocking on your door.
In a close election, as this promises to be, digital could be decisive. Just ask Ann Romney. Better yet, tweet her: @AnnDRomney. (More on that later.)
Or ask Andrew Rasiej, social media campaign strategist, founder of Personal Democracy Media, co-founder of TechPresident. He says 2008 was "the beginning of social media on the political scene. But as of 2012, the digital campaign is on steroids."
In four years, much has changed. Don't say new media; it's so 2008. Say digital. Both campaigns have digital directors. Obama's is Teddy Goff, associate vice president for the digital-strategy company Blue State Digital. Romney's is Zac Moffatt, cofounder of the Virginia strategy company Targeted Victory.
On paper, at least, digital Obama seems to have a massive advantage. Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political science professor at La Salle University and a 2008 Obama delegate, says the president's campaign "is way ahead in the digital game." His Twitter address (run by his campaign team) has more than 14 million followers; Romney's has about 424,000. Obama enjoys 25 million "likes" on Facebook; on his Timeline, if you click Born, an image of a BarackObama.com pops up -- stamped with an image of his Hawaii birth certificate.
The world knows what digital wrought for Obama in 2008. More than 35,000 local support groups sprang up through the website My Barack Obama. (Joe Rospars, digital strategy director, Obama campaign: "For us, social media are about community organizing.")
YouTube was home to several Obama channels, attracting millions of viewers with slick, quickly made campaign videos. (John McCain's campaign started out far behind but redressed much of the gap during the summer of 2008, especially via YouTube.) The Obama digital team created an email list 13.5 million strong. These strategies attracted many people previously uninvolved in politics. Half a billion dollars were raised online from three million donors, with most donations under $100.
(A less-told part of the 2008 story: Much of it was just plain folks. Of 1.5 billion views of online videos during that campaign, 90 percent were of vids made by individuals, re-posting a TV clip or posting their own, of McCain or Obama on the stump.)
"I don't think digital won the election in 2008," says Rasiej, "but it was important, and it woke people up."
There are opportunities here for Romney. Yes, Team Obama has been hiring digital geniuses since last summer and has a sturdy 50-state strategy in place. But Romney & Co. have already shown considerable savvy.
As Balchunis says, the former Massachusetts governor "appeals to voters who are usually older." Maybe that once meant non-tech-savvy voters. But a recent Pew study shows seniors are using social media to become expert networkers. ("My 85-year-old dad uses social media all the time," says Rasiej.)
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