Largely the Right still views digital politics the way it views TV ads – they use it to drive a message to voters. And while you can certainly effectively deliver a message through a digital campaign, that is like using a smartphone for nothing more than to make and receive calls. The Internet today offers campaigns tools, data and insights that operatives could have only dreamed of a few years ago.
But the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 took a completely different approach. The digital campaign wasn’t about driving a message as much as it was a tool that impacted each and every aspect of the campaign. You saw it in the write ups following the 2008 campaign and we will see more in the coming weeks and months as people analyze how the 2012 Obama campaign was able to engage and mobilize the left, leaving the GOP in complete shock on election day.
The Obama campaign knew they needed to do more than just drive a message. They needed a full blown digital campaign, integrated with a traditional campaign to give them data on how voters were reacting to their messages, what motivated them and how to engage them going forward. In a certain respect, the Obama campaign was able to use its online efforts to turn the electorate into a daily, real-time focus group that it used to direct every aspect of the campaign.
While Conservatives were focused on driving poll-test messages on TV, radio and online – the Obama campaign was using its digital efforts to engage in real-time two way communications to learn about voters, speak to them in a more intimate way and find the best ways to motivate them to engage with the campaign and ultimately get them to vote.
Need more evidence? You do not have to look much further than the online ad spending from an infographic from ReTargeter. The Romney campaign was out-spent nearly 2-1. But what is even more telling is when the campaigns spent the money.
Despite being outspent 2-1 on online ads as a campaign, the Romney campaign actually outspent the Obama campaign by 27.5% in the month leading up the election. In fact, the Romney campaign spent 63.4% of the $26 million it spent on online ads between August and the end of October. In comparison, the Obama campaign spent just over $12 million of the $52 million (or just 23 percent) it spent on online ads during the closing months of the campaign.

The Obama campaign’s early spending makes sense because not only were they using online ads not just to drive a message, but also as a means to a greater end – turning out actual voters. When the full story is told, we will see how the Obama campaign used their online ads, and their entire online efforts – to collect data on voters. And they integrated the data they captured online into a sophisticated fundraising, voter contact, voter ID and GOTV machine unlike any campaign has used before.
Similar to how the Nixon-Kennedy debates ushered in a new era of campaigns based on public image, the Obama campaign of 2012 will usher in a new way to run campaigns based on integrating digital politics with the data on how individual voters react to the campaign.
After the 2008 elections, the Right made a lot of noise about catching up with the Left on the digital side of campaigns. Unfortunately all too often that translated into just being involved in the online conversation. The fact of the matter is that the Obama campaign has fundamentally changed the way campaigns are run. And if the Right does not believe that, Conservative are in for many more disappointing Election nights.
Skoglund is a partner at the Orange Hat Group.