As we await the first official results of the 2016 presidential primary to see if outcomes reflect recent polling, there is one thing that is not in doubt. Social media has had an impact on this election cycle like never before. Obama’s “Facebook Campaign” of 2008 was revolutionary, but in this year’s presidential election cycle we are witnessing social media’s impact expand in several profound ways.
Messaging: Candidates are using social media to present positions, level attacks, correct missteps and, most remarkably, to drive the news cycle. No one has been more masterful at this last point than Trump, where the media is either reporting on his latest tweet or asking another candidate to respond to it. For a space that is known to require a relinquishing of message control it is something to behold. Sanders can also attribute much of the unexpected success of his campaign to social media. Reddit got a lot of people to #FeeltheBern with a popular subreddit of over 137,000 supporters who are analyzing and disseminating information on behalf of the candidate. The two surprising New Hampshire front runners are also benefiting from the reach of their messages to new and disenfranchised parts of the electorate through shared and owned media. Greater access through bloggers and social media to alternative ideas from the coverage of national or local news helps balance the disparagement of earned media between Trump and Sanders.
Fund-Raising: Sanders is breaking Obama’s records of small donor fundraising, but what is new in 2016 is fundraising through social media by campaign surrogates. It could be an environmentalist in California tapping their networks or a small business owner in New Hampshire hosting a potluck. It is an evolution of traditional tactics that connects with new audiences. This is increasing the contributions from $5 and $10 from individuals to $500 and $1000 from grassroots fundraisers organized online.
Mobilizing: Similar to fundraising and Bernie’s “Reddit Army” we are seeing a rise in more active advocates in social acting on behalf of campaigns. Candidates are empowering volunteers and evangelists to do some digital age “door knocking.” Social media provides more of a grassroots feel to the Super PACs that dominate the costly airwaves. Celebrity endorsements are not new, but they do have new tools to share their support with fans. Apps and websites offer voters information on registration, locations and voting processes, but the real question is can they get them to the polls? Campaigns aren’t taking the chance, with focus on their ground games, and not counting on a tweet to get supporters to vote.
Mining Data: There were big jumps from 2008 to 2012 in polling and data mining and 2016 will be studied closely as campaigns have greater analytic tools to identify potential supporters, connect with advocates and find behaviors that help hone messaging and target resources to persuadable audiences.
Candidates have launched campaigns on SnapChat, released campaign videos on YouTube and even curated their own Spotify playlist. Clinton, Sanders and Trump have all had amazing success in gaining and engaging followers. Though utilizing it for different purposes, they are all reaching broad audiences through different platforms to campaign in new ways – not to replace yard signs and bumper stickers, but to embrace the ways we receive and are influenced by information.
Outside of campaigns, marginalized voices and social activists have been able to use social media to become part of the conversation. From doctored Planned Parenthood videos to #BlackLivesMatter, national media coverage and party debates have been unable to ignore the power of social media to rally support behind issues they feel are being ignored on the stump.
One last point that came up in my conversations with veterans of national and state campaigns for candidates from both parties is the disparity in social media sophistication between the two parties on a national level. GOP candidates have used social media effectively in local and state elections, and while in office, however, the party overall is well behind the Democrats at the national level. It’s surprising, given the success they witnessed of the Obama coalition in the last two elections. One former volunteer speculated that the reluctance may be the product of a fear of relinquishing control and potentially looking foolish. The latter is a trait I don’t think Trump possesses, and his ability to maintain control of the news cycle and conversation may have a lot to do with his unexpected rise in the polls.
The big question is will social media have the same impact on results as it has had on the conversation and the polls? It is no replacement for the persuasive power of a one-on-one interaction with an individual running for the most powerful job in the world, nor does it diminish the need for volunteers canvasing on the ground.