Since the development of various technologies and progression of the digital age, the electoral process has dramatically changed since 1789 when George Washington was elected. The presidential candidates for the 2016 election are fighting a battle that hasn’t been fought before.
The Past – 1789 to 2000s.
In early America, presidents such as George Washington and James Monroe traveled by horseback or carriage to address crowds in person and published statements in “broadsheets” and early newspapers. Lincoln had the relative advantage of traveling by locomotive or using the telegraph. Telephones appeared in the White House in 1877 while Rutherford B. Hayes was president. Like Harding, President William Taft used the phonograph to distribute recordings of his speeches. However, the most rapid advancement in communication for presidents occurred in the 20th century. 1
Those advancements are found in the introduction of radio, television, and later, the internet. Each technology had the power to change, for better or for worse, a candidate’s campaigns and influence on voters.
One of the most notable, influential presidential campaigns that took advantage of the media occurred in 1960, when Kennedy was running against Nixon. They participated in first ever televised Presidential debates known as “The Great Debates.” The debates were simultaneously broadcasted over the radio. Those listening to the radio declared Nixon the winner of the debate, and those watching the televised broadcast decidedly chose Kennedy as the winner. Why was there such a stark difference of opinion? On the radio, listeners judge the debates through speech and tone. With the introduction of television, there came all kinds of new ways to judge candidates: not just by what was said, but body language, eye contact, charisma, and of course, appearance. When it came to the newly developed judging criteria, Kennedy floored his opponent. Kennedy looked directly into the camera, whereas Nixon shifted his gaze to the side. Kennedy was tanned, and wore make-up; Nixon looked pale and sickly after just recovering from the flu. 2
Polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by “The Great Debates,” while 6% claimed that the debates alone had decided their choice. Whether or not the debates cost Nixon the presidency, they were a major turning point in the 1960 race—and in the history of media in campaigns. 3
The slightly more recent past.
Social Media. Need I say more? Okay, I guess I do.
Barack Obama, coined the “President of Social Media”, garnered five million supporters on fifteen social networking sites for the 2008 election, with most of the “follower” count being on Facebook and Twitter. Prior to this election, neither of these platforms were used in campaigns. During his 2008 campaign, Obama launched an “Ask Me Anything” thread on popular site, Reddit, which became one of the most popular threads of all time. Obama and his team strategized to use these social media platforms to reach out to the young and minority voters. Upon his victory in the 2008 election, Barack sent a tweet “We just made history. All of this happened because you gave you time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks” – which was retweeted only 157 times. His later 2012 victory tweet (“Four more years.”) became the most shared post in the site’s history, with over 400,000 retweets within a few hours of his posting. 5
This dramatic increase shows the incredible growth of not only users on twitter, but their online interactions in politics. Obama was the first candidate to embrace and effectively utilize social media in his campaign, and throughout his presidency. His strategy was so effective because “the medium wasn’t the message, so to speak; it was the vehicle. It connected with people, with real enthusiasm, in real time, and gave them an easy and accessible way to show their support for change.” 6 Currently Obama has twenty aides that update his social media accounts.
The current campaigns for the 2016 Presidential Election featured the first “official” integration of social media of its kind – with Twitter. Sure, hashtags have been used widely for years – and Obama certainly capitalized on the use of Twitter during his campaign and throughout his presidency. However, this is the first election that Twitter officially partnered with the GOP and Democratic Debates.
This partnership featured live coverage of the events on Twitter. Users simply had to click on the #GOPdebate or #DemDebate links and they would be brought to a live twitter feed of coverage. The feed showed popular tweets using the hashtags, a “top stories” with photos and videos, and a sidebar for related articles to topics being discussed on the debates, provided by organizations such as USA Today, New York Times, and Fox News. (It is worth noting briefly that the organizations that were live tweeting were largely either reiterating the candidates’ claims, or in some cases, to support their own agenda, so to speak. @PlannedParenthood was especially active during the debates, either condemning the views of Republicans or praising those of Democrats. Clearly, the material being promoted on twitter was not bias-free.)
The Democratic Debate on Nov 14th, 2015 aired on the CBS network. Twitter and CBS linked together, and users had the unique opportunity to tweet to CBS using the #DemDebate hashtag. Tweets were pulled from the thousands sent, and some were read to the candidates to respond to – not unlike how reality shows in the same vein as America’s Got Talent and The Voice display live tweets. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton made a statement early in the debate, and a twitter user tweeted asking her to clarify her response. Hillary addressed the question and cleared up any miscommunication (well, so she hopes).
All of the candidates were tweeting during the debates. Rather, someone on their team was tweeting from their accounts. This gave candidates an extra platform to clarify or expand upon their responses in the debate. Hillary Clinton’s twitter account even tweeted at the start of the debate, “If you’re not watching the #demdebate, we can email you the highlights!” along with a link to sign up for her mailing list. Clever, Hillary. Clever.
Okay, but does social media really make a difference?
Facebook claims to have increased voter turnout by 340,000 votes. And a third of those aged 18-24 indicated that reading something on social media would influence their vote more than televised debates. In the same age group of those online, 41% of users participated in political activity online. 7
In today’s world, not having a digital presence would be more detrimental than having one. Candidates that don’t use social media might come off as if they had something to hide. Erin Lindsay, a principal for digital at Precision Strategies, says social media “forces candidates to show more personality. Authenticity is a big thing in social media. I think the candidates that are the most successful are the ones that are clearly the most comfortable.” 8 Voters want someone genuine, and social media gives a way for the candidates to prove their authenticity.
The political advertisement spending is expected to reach 11.4 billion dollars for the upcoming election. Spending on social media is estimated to account for over half of the one million dollar budget for social media – a 5,000% increase from the 2008 election. 9 With a budget this large, you can definitely expect a flurry of activity from the candidates on the networking platforms.
Facebook and Twitter have been the major sources of social media campaigning. However, this election is the first one in which we can see Instagram becoming an up-and-coming player. In November 2015, Instagram boasted having 400 million monthly users, as opposed to Twitter’s 316 million. 10 The campaigning territory on Instagram is starting to be utilized, but still is not as popular as Facebook and Twitter when it comes to political activity. Imagine the mental anguish that would go into choosing the best photo filter…
From riding on horseback to constructing a (hopefully) carefully thought out tweet, candidates have embraced technology as a part of their campaign.
- http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/harding-becomes-first-president-to-be-heard-on-the-radio ↩
- http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/kennedy-nixon-debates ↩
- http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/kennedy-nixon-debates ↩
- http://www.kingsacademy.com/mhodges/03_The-World-since-1900/11_The-Bewildering-60s/pictures/Nixon-Kennedy-debates_1960.jpg ↩
- http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/07/how-barack-obama-celebrated-twitter ↩
- http://www.dragonflyeffect.com/blog/dragonfly-in-action/case-studies/the-obama-campaign/ ↩
- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/r-kay-green/the-game-changer-social-m_b_8568432.html ↩
- http://thehill.com/policy/technology/251185-welcome-to-the-social-media-election ↩
- http://www.wired.com/2015/08/digital-politcal-ads-2016/ ↩
- http://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/23/instagram-hits-400-million-users-beating-twitter.html ↩