Is social media the lynchpin upon which Obama’s victory rested upon?

This essay deal with two issues, it first makes an an attempt to discuss whether the Obama campaign, in taking the campaign online, has aided democracy. Next, it attempts to analyze whether social media was, as Lutz argued, the crucial variable that explains Obama’s victory, or whether there are other plausible explanations for why Obama won the election.

Democratic or not?

In The Social Pulpit, Lutz argues that Obama won the presidency by a margin of 8.5 million popular votes by converting everyday people into volunteers, and attributes the proclivity to online advocacy as a major reason for this victory. According to Lutz, Obama’s win was dependent on going to where the people were, different social network platforms, in order to reach different niche audiences. In addition, analytics were harnessed to improve engagement activities when the success of e-mails, and text messages were tracked in order to determine what worked. Crafting, and recrafting a message such that it will speak to the audience, and outmaneuver any competitors seems more on the order of devising and redevising an advertising strategy that is designed to persuade one to buy a product, regardless whether it is useful. As such, when a campaign manages to silence oppositional views because of its advertising genius (and not because a candidate’s political acumen surpasses all competitors), can it be truly said that that win, even though it satisfied democratic procedures, respected the spirit of democracy? The constant monitoring of online behaviors in order to develop a good strategy to win a campaign is not inherently bad. But, whether this engagement develops into a phenomena that contributes to a flourishing democracy is also questionable, since it is arguable that the jury is still out on whether people who got involved, came to be involved because they rationally deliberated over Obama’s policy positions, or whether they got involved and were campaigning for the campaign’s sake. The tactics utilized in Obama’s campaign seems to parallel what Kreiss and Howard’s believed the Obama campaign was doing to democracy. Lutz highlights how Obama’s campaign strategy worked by pointing out that it depended on Edelman to ‘shape messages for online audiences and develop customized campaigns aimed at achieving public policy objectives.’ Kreiss underscores the intrinsic problems with such a campaign by discussing the security issues involved, and posits how social pressure can affect whether one’s decision is made, free from peer pressure, and less at risk of being manipulated into having to conform to social norms. As such, inasmuch as it has often been held that the Obama campaign, in mobilizing the masses, epitomizes the democratizing potential of the Internet when millions of supporters were mobilized, the pertinent question is not how many supporters did the campaign mobilize, rather, it is, why Obama’s supporters mobilized? Was it because the rationally considered Obama’s political positions and in concert, decided that that was the best for America, or were they campaigning because their friends were doing so? It would be interesting to determine if the reason why so many Obama supporters have jumped ship, and are now criticizing Obama stems from the fact that the novelty and online buzz of the Presidential Elections of 2008 has all but faded off.

Was social media really the key variable that was indubitably crucial in Obama’s victory?

In addition, it is arguable that though Lutz claims that the online campaign was crucial in Obama’s win, there are several plausible alternate explanation that can explain why Obama won.

Given the cataclysmic economic conditions, with job losses predicted to be greater than any year since the Great Depression, statistical models[1] based on presidential elections from 1952-2004, and the theory on retrospective voting behavior indicate that Obama should have obtained a landslide victory. I argue that one cannot unequivocally conclude that Obama’s victory in the election was a result of how social media was harnessed because given that vote choice is largely correlated to economic conditions, the retrospective voting behavior could well explain why Obama won.

In order to establish that candidates voted based on economic conditions, and thereby serve as a third variable that can explain why Obama managed to accrue 43% of the White vote, I used the 2008 Presidential Election dataset that was provided by the American National Election Study, and ran a crosstab to test the hypothesis: A negative opinion on the performance of the economy –> voters choose candidate not from the incumbent’s party.

According to my findings, 68% of the respondents who felt that the economy and unemployment levels had gotten worse in comparison to the previous year were more likely to vote for Obama, who was not from the incumbent’s party. The p-value was <.001 confirming that the relationship was not due to chance. My findings establish that a majority of the candidates voted for Obama based on the prevailing economic conditions. Ergo, Obama’s ability to accrue 43% of the White vote could well have been due to the dire economic conditions that had undermined the legitimacy of the Republican party. My findings are further corroborated by Linn; Moody & Asper (2009, 460-4), whose statistical estimations indicate the inextricability of the status of the economy and presidential approval, with the electorate’s vote choice. According to Linn et al., each successive economic crisis report removed support from McCain, adding it to support for Obama; with the federal government’s seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac causing McCain’s lead to drop to 44% and fluctuate along that percentage for the remainder of the race. Given that candidate support is highly correlated to economic conditions, with the economy at its worst since 1945, the stage had already been set for a Democrat win. Ergo, I argue that Obama could accrue 43% of the White vote partly because in 2008, the economic conditions were so dire that a segment of the White population were willing to vote for the change that Obama had campaigned on. This finding casts aspersions on any causal argument that Obama won the elections because social media was the key variable. It remains to be seen if Americans will still vote for Obama if the economy, which could have affected voting choice, was not in such a dire state.

Lewis-Beck et al., (2010, 69-73) takes the argument[1] one step further and argue that systematic statistical models based on presidential elections from 1952-80, one can reliably predict that Obama should have obtained a landslide victory. The 2008 elections were also compared with the 1952 and 1980 elections where both Truman and Carter had to cope with low popularity and economic crises, and as a result, their challengers swept 55.4% and 55.3% of the popular vote respectively (Lewis-Beck; Tien & Nadeau 2010, 70). Given that Bush had a popularity rating that hovered at 25%, and the economy was in worse shape than in 1952 and 80, based on statistical models, Obama should have won 58.7%[2] of the vote. He, however, only garnered 52.9% of the vote, resulting in a shortfall of 4.8 percentage points. Given that the economic conditions and popularity ratings (two known variables that affect voting choice) were similar to 1952, and 1980, assuming the validity and reliability of the statistical models, the shortfall between predicted popular vote and actual vote, is indicative that Obama performance was not necessarily aided by social media, given the disparity in outcomes.

Given the systematic economic crisis, and a president whose approval rating was at an all-time low of 25% in October (Lewis-Beck; Tien & Nadeau 2010, 70), and that there is a general consensus among political scientists that with the solitary exception of 2000, the incumbent’s party is habitually tossed out when the economy is doing poorly (Campbell & Garand 2000, 15-24), the stage was already set for a Democrat victory. However, Obama’s only won 43% of the White vote, and had the racial composition of voters remain similar to previous elections, and Obama not receive an increase in 7% of Black vote, and 11% of the Hispanic vote, he would have lost the election (Lewis-Beck et al., 2010, 73). This outcome would have contradicted studies that analyzed preceding elections that were held during economic crises, most of which yield results indicating that the electorate would switch sides and vote against the incumbent’s party. Assuming the empirical accuracy of these studies, can it be claimed that the social media was what explained Obama’s victory? If so, what explains the difference in expected vote, and actual vote?

This essay has raised several questions, but in the interests of convenience, one key question that really interests me is — Did social media truly aid in Obama’s victory, and hence, contributed to democracy by signalling the end of America’s racist past, or is it detrimental to democracy when people think that Internet is the panacea and decide to do nothing else?


[1] The argument is that the economic crisis – the third variable — of 2008 renders it impossible to conclude that America is in a postracial era based on Obama’s victory.

[2] After factoring in possible statistical errors.


[1] These statistical models have been able to reliably predict voting outcomes where the difference in predicted voting outcome and actual voting outcome are not statistically significant.

Additional References

Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Charles Stewart III. (January/February 2009) Amazing Race: How Post-Racial Was Obama‟s Victory? Boston Review.

Lewis-Beck, M. S., Tien, C., & Nadeau, R. (January 15, 2010). Obama’s Missed Landslide: A Racial Cost?. Ps: Political Science & Politics, 43, 1, 69-76.

Linn, S., Moody, J., & Asper, S. (July 26, 2009). Explaining the Horse Race of 2008. Ps: Political Science & Politics, 42, 3.

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