Mitt Romney is not exactly big on the Internet. After months on the trail, he lags far behind Barack Obama as both a candidate and a topic. Obama nets more supporters and dollars through his online campaign, and draws more traffic in news and search—one of the rawest indicators of what Americans are looking for online.
But is that even a good thing?
Buzzfeed, a popular online bulletin board that dived into politics this year, recently touched on the online disparity with, naturally, an eye-catching headline. “Mitt Romney Is Terrible for Traffic,” the site declared, its horror duly noted.
The article surveyed bloggers and web writers who have learned that “no one wants to read about Mitt Romney.” Lots of data back up that claim.
Presidents do make a lot more news than challengers, however, so it could be unfair to credit Obama for his built-in audience. To combat confounding variables, Buzzfeed also conducted “a sort of controlled experiment” comparing the audience for two similar, equally promoted, photo-driven stories about both men.
The Obama piece didn’t just win, its audience was five times bigger.
“The Obama-centric posts vastly outperformed those about Romney,” BuzzFeed reported. With pictures of Obama “as a young man,” the item may have been popular because of the the prominence of Obama’s “personal narrative,” explained BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins. Just because a piece about Obama is popular, however, does not mean its readers are for Obama.
That was the case with the test post, in fact, and it may reflect a wider trend popping up online.
The post about Obama as a young man, it turns out, drew the majority of its viral views from Obama’s most strident opponents—the websites of two conservative talk radio stars.
About 76 percent of the post’s 46,000 viral views—clicks from referring sites—came via Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. This data was not in the Buzzfeed article about Obama’s traffic edge, but the site’s transparent data dashboard makes the numbers easy to access.
These readers are primarily Obama detractors looking for something to feast on, which is clear from comments about the pictures on Beck’s site. That dynamic was not limited to the test post, either.
Andrew Kaczynski, a BuzzFeed reporter who specializes in searching political archives and who created the photo collection, draws lots of traffic for his Obama coverage. Last week, for example, his most popular pieces were all about the president. The top item catalogued “tall tales” from Obama’s memoir, according to a new book, and its top referrals came from Fox News and a conservative blog. The next item, featuring pictures from Obama’s trip to Africa, also had more viral views from Fox News than any other site. Overall, aside from agnostic social networks like Facebook, the top traffic drivers for Kaczynski’s most popular recent posts were two Fox News sites and a conservative blog. (Andrew Sullivan, a blogger sympathetic to Obama, appears further down the list.)
Now, if that’s the kind of viral traffic driving Obama’s “buzz,” Mitt Romney can certainly do without it.
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For sticklers, there are a few more caveats, of course. In the end, no one expects anything like a direct correlation between the public’s attention, measured online or off, and how people actually vote. Just moving from a single website to broader data, for example, Obama beats Romney in news coverage and Google search volume in blue and red states alike. Romney currently leads the polls in North Carolina, but he has not bested Obama on those metrics once over the past month (as the chart below shows). Meanwhile, in the traditional media, Obama’s greater share of press coverage, compared to Republicans, has resulted in greater scrutiny and more negative stories, according to a recent study from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. And to be sure, Obama still has a valuable edge in tangible campaign operations online, from fundraising with the largest e-mail list of any candidate in history to targeting the release of supporters’ voting locations via text message (a gap that The Nation’s Ben Adler explores here). But for now, all that other traffic is still a mixed blessing.
News and search volume in North Carolina over the past month, according to Google: