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Election 2012 – Insights from the Candidates’ Online Campaigns


2012 will set new records for the use of online marketing by United States Presidential candidates. President Obama and Mitt Romney are each spending over $1B on trying to win the election, and the Internet is a major battleground. This large sum of investment in advertising, especially digitally, demonstrates a shift in the war for consumers’ votes. 50% of voters compare candidates online across nearly 15 different sources of information while making a decision.* This reliance on digital media and the vast number of sources available makes winning the digital war that much more important in this election. Rosetta has performed an assessment of each campaign’s performance across Paid, Owned, and Earned Media (POEM). These include paid ads that appear in search results, online display advertising banners, and “organic” (free) search engine results.

To perform the research, Rosetta created themed groups related to:

Rosetta measured performance from September 10, 2012 through October 23, 2012. Each candidate protected searches for their own brand 100% of the time, but President Obama had considerably more exposure for searches related to foreign policy and healthcare subjects, while Mitt Romney spent more on “Vice President”-related terms and actually bidding on President Obama-inclusive searches. Mitt Romney had no measured exposure for healthcare- and Obamacare-related terms, which was surprising.

Both Campaigns Missing Messaging Opportunities

Overall exposure for important topics was remarkably low within search engines

Rosetta was very surprised to see “Paid Search white space” for many topics that should have been covered by the campaign online marketing teams. For example, the following search for “presidential foreign policy” yielded zero Paid Search ad units when collected 10/19/2012 in Cleveland:

By contrast, “economic plan” yields ad units for each of the presidents, with Mitt grabbing first place thanks to a combination of the bid and perceived “quality” of the ad and landing page:

The topics that Rosetta measured showed an interesting contrast between party/candidate focus. The following summary (not exhaustive) chart shows the exposure (number of times each candidate was represented in paid search results pages for the keywords we used) percentages that include some surprising “zeros”:

  Date Range: Last 30 Days from 10.23.12 (Desktop Searches) Romney Obama
PAID - Desktop Budget Marketshare  0.00% 1.80%
Education Marketshare 28.90% 23.60%
Election General Marketshare 32.50% 37.80%
Foreign Policy Marketshare 9.40% 37.80%
Healthcare Marketshare 0.00% 13.20%
"Hot Button" Issues Marketshare 7.20% 14.80%
Jobs and the Economy 0.00% 2.70%
Taxes on Wealthy 0.00% 1.20%
"Brand" Marketshare 100.00% 94.50%
"Vice Presidents" Marketshare 65.30% 21.80%
Competitive Market Share 30.80% 19.10%
TOTAL PAID SEARCH Coverage 20.00% 19.00%

This lack of exposure for a number of timely and relevant topics is concerning, given that each of the candidates has invested a significant amount of time and dollars into the online space. Rosetta is surprised that neither of the candidates had strong exposure across the majority of these topics, given that they represent an important group of themes that will be central to not only election decisions, but to the future of Americans. It is possible that online spending will grow and expanded keyword targeting will take effect in the last few weeks leading up to the election, but time is certainly running out.

Both Campaigns Encroaching the Other’s Brand (Names)

Obama Makes Fun of Romney’s Tax Plan

Rosetta – along with thousands of searchers – have discovered an interesting microsite from the Obama campaign. Note the following search for “Romney tax plan” (screenshot from 10/19/2012):

The Web site www.romneytaxplan.com is actually a site developed by the Democratic National Committee (and not approved by any candidates, according to the required disclaimer) and leads to the following:

If a visitor tries to click on the “Get the Details” box, it moves away from the cursor repeatedly, making it literally impossible to find information about the proposed tax plan. In addition, a correction is applied to the Romney logo at the top, amending it to state belief in only “half of” America:

Mitt Romney has also bid on a number of President Obama brand terms, but hasn’t been as creative, instead relying on calls to action within the ad units to drive interest in the Romney campaign:

In the example above, although the Romney camp has done well to try to hijack searchers from Obama-related sites by purchasing the top Paid Search ad unit, Obama’s owned media is complemented by the Paid Search ad unit on the right navigation, to create 3 different pro-Obama choices – the Paid Search ad, and both www.barackobama.com and www.change.gov. Also, the www.whitehouse.gov page listed is currently pro-Obama.

Both the candidates demonstrate the importance of “Reputation Management” within search engine results pages, through their use of shrewd “attacks” by bidding on the other’s brand terms. In these cases, Obama seems to be coming out on top as a result of strong Owned media providing multiple pro-Obama content choices.

Display Advertising Indicates Polarized Strategy

Obama Wins Banner Exposure Race Q1-Q2, Romney Dominating Q3 and Q4

According to Nielsen’s AdRelevance Tool, President Obama has nearly 5 times the total number of impressions of Display Advertising ad units during 2012, but Mitt Romney is closing the gap during Q3 and early Q4 with a more aggressive strategy.

Impressions by Month for Democratic National Committee BarackObama.com for Custom Advertiser Group "Political Campaign" During January 2012 through September 2012
Month Impressions
Jan-12 125,194,000
Feb-12 516,974,000
Mar-12 298,920,000
Apr-12 490,558,000
May-12 624,281,000
Jun-12 533,975,000
Jul-12 1,075,261,000
Aug-12 1,129,244,000
Sep-12 4,206,157,000
Week of 10/01/2012 587,337,000
Week of 10/08/2012 292,232,000
Total 9,880,133,000
Impressions by Month for Romney for President, Inc. for Custom Advertiser Group "Political Campaign" During January 2012 through September 2012
Month Impressions
Jan-12 15,327,000
Feb-12 75,000
Mar-12 32,000
Apr-12 20,000
May-12 482,000
Jun-12 1,328,000
Jul-12 5,911,000
Aug-12 9,910,000
Sep-12 7,040,000
Week of 10/01/2012 766,000
Week of 10/08/2012 102,000
Total 40,993,000

Source: Nielsen AdRelevance, October 2012

The display advertising strategy shows that both parties are keen on driving awareness of their online messaging, and gives some credence to the strength of this tactic, since Mitt Romney has arguably closed the polling gap since the increased display advertising focus. As November 6 draws closer, Rosetta expects the Obama campaign to continue to maintain exposure using these tactics.  The Romney camp continues to pale in comparison to the sheer number of total impressions.

Owned Media (Organic Search Rankings) Evenly Split

Both candidates have a lot of work to do on Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of getting Web site text or image/video content indexed and ranking well in the search engines’ “free” or organic results. Rosetta didn’t identify a clear winner on this front, with both candidates doing well on some topics and poorly in many. The following is a sample of the terms Rosetta reviewed and the organic search rankings as of 10/15/12:

Keyword Mitt Romney Barack Obama
barack obama Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 1
budget deficit Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
early voting Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
economic plan 3 4
education reform Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
federal budget deficit Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
foreign policy 13 Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
healthcare 6 8
healthcare reform 77 Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
job creation Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 57
joe biden Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 9
middle class tax cuts Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 4
middle class taxes 15 2
mitt romney 1 Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
obama bailouts Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 84
obama eduction Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 5
obama foreign policy Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
obamacare 62 68
paul ryan 6 19
presidential campaign 2012 Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 72
presidential debate Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
presidential election campaign Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 52
romney plan 1 26
romney education plan 1 18
romney tax returns 3 Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
tax cuts 27 16
taxes for the wealthy Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages 19
trade regulation Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
unemployment rate Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages Not Ranked in Top 3 Pages
Obama Wins
Romney Wins
Missed Opportunities / Threats

Granted, it takes time to develop authority to rank in search engines for many of these phrases, but it appears that little effort was given by either candidate’s online marketing team to rank for many keywords that have a significant search volume, as well as being highly relevant to the election. In the representative sample above, “health care” and “economic plan” are two close battles to watch, as Mitt Romney holds the current advantage for these terms and is likely “above the fold” for each, relegating Obama organic results to those who scroll down. In today’s world of “Instant Results” from Google, any of these terms could be targeted by either campaign and successfully defended or attacked, even with only a few weeks to go until November 6.


The Presidential candidates’ competition for exposure across Paid, Owned, and Earned Media can be very much classified as a major battle. However, if President Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s online marketing teams were competing in a tougher and more competitive space, such as selling retail or financial services products, they would likely be looking for new jobs. Although a lot of impressions and traffic were likely delivered to each campaign’s Web sites, the gaps in coverage are extremely evident over the past month of the campaign. Each party would be wise to learn from these missed opportunities, and plan accordingly in 2016.

Google Zero Moment of Truth, Voters, April 2011 - http://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/insights/library/studies/zmot-voting-study/

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