Incumbent presidents almost always hold advantages over their reelection opponents: no ugly primary battle, better name recognition, more fundraising opportunities and more media attention.
Digital media adds another benefit. Incumbents have years to establish a digital presence, which means they get a big jump on future rivals in terms of owning their reputation on the Web.
Check out this chart from search engine optimization firm Conductor:
The 2008 Obama campaign’s digital strategy was a huge success — one of the first operations to harness the Web to supplement its grass-roots and fundraising efforts.
But more important for this election is that the Web presence that now-President Obama established then is still in place. It has built on its massive Twitter, Facebook and YouTube audience steadily since.
The Boston Globe reported in 2009 that the Obama campaign had 3.4 million Facebook followers. The president has about eight times that many today. @BarackObama joined Twitter in 2007 and has 14 million followers. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, joined in 2009 (@Mitt Romney) and now has 451,000 followers.
Those numbers don’t mean much on their own unless the individual campaigns mobilize their audiences. The Obama campaign proved its ability to turn its digital following into fundraising and organizing success in 2008.
BuzzFeed reported earlier this week that the Romney’s digital operation is increasingly using Twitter as a core messaging tool. Despite the candidate’s huge disadvantage in number of followers, @MentionMachine data for the past week show Romney was mentioned only about 8,000 fewer times than Obama was on Twitter.
The full Conductor study shows Romney’s digital presence gave him a big advantage over Rick Santorum and other challengers in the GOP presidential primary race. His Web site was easier to find in search engine queries than any of the other GOP candidates, and he spent far less on digital ads than Santorum did in the first few months of 2012, before he dropped out of the race.
Now Romney must build up his online audience and engage those followers at a quick pace to catch up with Obama in translating his digital following into success in fundraising, organizing — and, of course,, in getting the votes.