Early Voting

Barack Obama’s Campaign Scoring Points With Video Gamers

The president and Romney are targeting legions of early voters. Lauren Ashburn on how Obama’s use of Madden NFL could get him to the end zone.

Jim Watson / Getty Images

You’ve sunk my battleship!

That popular phrase ran endlessly in long-ago TV commercials promoting the board-game version of naval warfare. Now, that battleground has morphed into a digital shootout that could tip the balance of the presidential campaign.

The Obama team has targeted Battleship and 17 other online games—including Scrabble, Tetris, and Madden NFL 13—in highly contested swing states to woo legions of early voters.

By placing ads alongside these popular titles by Electronic Arts, the president’s campaign hopes to replicate the past success of this strategy. In 2008, surveys found that gamers who saw political ads were 120 percent more likely to have a positive reaction to the candidate, and 50 percent more likely to consider casting a vote for him.

Those who click are transported to GottaVote.com or GottaRegister.com, which are Obama/Biden sites.

By the end of September, 30 states will have begun early voting. The geo-targeting approach is one more way the Obama campaign is using alternative methods to reach voters—particularly younger ones. His omnipresence on social media has boosted his popularity with the Justin Bieber crowd.

It might seem a stretch to say that those trying to reach the end zone in a video football game, or who spend time blowing up each other’s virtual ships, are crucial to the outcome of the 2012 race. But that’s precisely the point. In politics you have to reach potential voters where they hang out, and younger folks in particular are hard to reach. They don’t watch much television, let alone political chat shows. Many don’t spend much time thinking about politics. But if an ad pops up while they’re tackling Tetris, you have landed on their radar screen.

The latest version of John Madden’s football game sold 900,000 units in one day after its debut late last month—talk about an opportunity to gain yardage.

Mitt Romney has been playing catch-up on the get-out-the-vote front, but has a sophisticated strategy as well. His operation is running highly targeted Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and buying search terms on Google to reach potential early voters and plan to use geo-targeted push notifications on their mobile app.

Early voting made up about nearly a third of the total tally in 2008, and experts estimate that the numbers could reach 40 percent this time. What’s more, some prognosticators are saying the figure could reach as high as 70 percent in such crucial states as Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

Think about that for a minute. The flood of TV and online ads in October, and the three presidential debates, will be reaching a shrinking pool of available voters. With 32 states allowing early in-person voting, and nearly all permitting absentee ballots—although you need an excuse in some of those jurisdictions—one candidate could close the deal well before Nov. 6.

This is the most digital campaign in history, with Obama having 28.8 million Facebook likes and Romney 7.5 million. Both sides and their partisan compadres routinely do battle on Twitter. The campaigns have sought fans on Pinterest and Instagram and the candidates have put in their time at Google Hangouts. The president shattered records by answering questions on Reddit.

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But video and online gaming is, if not a new frontier, certainly a vast one. It is the digital equivalent of the candidates appearing on The View, Leno or Letterman—bypassing the traditional MSM and perhaps trying to appear cool in the process.

Of course, not everyone is blowing up battleships. Some are playing the electronic version of Scrabble, one of the most venerable games around.

If Obama—an avid Scrabble player—can drive early voters to the polls or mailboxes, he could achieve the equivalent of a triple word score.