Of course, Facebook "likes" don't equal votes, and with a younger base of support you'd expect to see more Facebook activity for Obama, so that gap may not tell us all that much about this race. But dig a little deeper into the Facebook data and two very different pictures emerge of who these 32 million and 12 million are, and what it is about their candidate-of-choice that speaks to them.
This is the conclusion of some pretty wonderful data scraping and analysis by Deen Freelon, a professor at American University. Freelon captured all of the likes, comments, and shares on Obama and Romney's Facebook pages between April 25 (the day the RNC officially endorsed Romney) and November 2. He then looked in the data for the posts that received the most likes/shares/comments, searching for the types of content that most resonated with supporters. He found that Obama supporters tended to go wild for (as measured by "likes") anything sentimental about the president's family, while Romney fans were more focused on the campaign itself -- "liking" posts that trumpeted its strength.
For comparison, here are two charts Freelon created that show spikes in "likes" since April, with each spike appearing underneath the text that garnered the approval. Photographs across the top of the chart accompanied the posts.
"The first thing that jumped out at me here was how none of the top five most-liked posts had anything to do with politics -- they were scenes from the Obamas' family life, the kinds of moments that could be found in any American family photo album," Freelon writes. "The wholesome sentiments these shots convey couldn't be farther from the knock-down drag-out negativity flooding the airwaves and the Internet throughout the timeframe, which may explain why they were so popular among Obama fans." (The fifth image didn't fit in the chart, but Freelon says the text of that one did the best job of speaking for itself. For the curious, the image that accompanied that post can be found here.)
As you can see, the top "liked" posts for the Romney campaign were all calls to help push them over some benchmark. "Romney's fans seem to be more goal-oriented than Obama's: rather than reveling in idyllic family scenes, they were most interested in showing off their support for Romney to their Facebook friends," Freelon writes. One explanation for this may be that because the Romney campaign has so many fewer fans, its Facebook base is made up of more hardcore supporters, while the 32 million Obama Facebook fans includes a broader swath of people, such as those who just generally feel positively about Obama, but who aren't as into the horse-race politics of campaign season.
Overall, posts on the Obama page had much higher median "likes" (111,231 compared with 64,182), shares (11,753 compared with 3,644), and comments (7,309 compared 4,376) than Romney's page, though Romney's peaks were far higher. The Romney campaign also posted much more frequently -- about twice as often -- so Romney's "like" totals are higher: (58.5 million compared with to 42.7 million), according to Freelon's calculations.
Freelon warns that it's important to bear in mind that these data "say much more about each campaign's supporters than they do about the candidates." Both campaigns posted about their families; both campaigns asked supporters to "like" and share content. The difference is in what resonated. For Romney, the enthusiasm seems to be more about winning, whereas for Obama there seems to be genuine enthusiasm for him as a person. That conclusion may directly capture only the activities of the campaigns' many fans, but of course they do in turn reflect something about the candidates -- and the positions they're in -- going into tomorrow.