Not long ago, they were the pulse of the American political campaign: Mom and Dad, sitting in front of the nightly news broadcast on TV, armed with a dog-eared copy of the daily newspaper. The ads, the daily coverage and editorials, televised debates, polls and TV ratings—over dinner-table discourse, it all mattered.
Now check the 2016 political pulse: Mom and Dad, their Millennial kids, and the Gen X neighbors, all armed with smartphones, are digesting a diverse diet of news from a spectrum of outlets, catching the latest ads and gaffes on YouTube, or checking Periscope for campaign events live. It doesn’t stop there: They’re getting push notifications from personally curated Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds several times a day to see how it’s all playing—all while receiving a parade of instant messages directly from the candidates. Each person living on a private island of information and opinions.
“The political conversation has moved from the bars and the dining-room tables to the digital space,” says Richard Koci Hernandez, assistant professor of new media in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “And politicians are wrangling it—and taking advantage of it.” The days are fast disappearing when presidential candidates will spend millions on network TV spots in which they are, he says, “shouting into a room and wondering who’s there.” Tectonic shifts in how candidates—and campaigns—reach voters have enshrined 2016 as the year social media reached full adulthood in politics.
It’s the year Twitter catapulted billionaire Donald Trump from being a long shot to being the GOP nominee, in part thanks to his uncanny penchant for newsmaking in 140-character posts, which reaped millions of dollars in free publicity for his campaign during the crowded GOP primaries. The stunningly effective strategy sparked veteran journalist Tom Brokaw to wonder if the billionaire businessman may become the first “to tweet his way to the White House.”
On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, boosted by Millennial voters, churned effective social media outreach into a fundraising bonanza—the average donation was $27 dollars—along with mega-rallies, which threatened to upend the campaign of frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the former Secretary of State, who introduced her 2016 campaign on Facebook, fully graduated to Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter—this time in Spanish—and celebrated her historic nomination with social media emojis celebrating “The Woman Card,” among other things.
Eight years ago, when he first entered the national political arena, “it was so clear Barack Obama had a clear lead” in social media and political innovation, recalls Coye Cheshire, associate professor at the Berkeley School of Information. But the political landscape is now a long way from those pioneer days when Obama broke through, marshalling other sites like MySpace and Bebo—remember them?—to reach waves of new voters: the Democratic “Obama coalition,” which carried him to the White House.
The partisan advantage, says Cheshire, has now leveled out. “In terms of usage of social media, now things are fairly equal” between the major party candidates. “They’re both using it—but they’re using it slightly differently. Nobody is sitting this round out.” Both have tapped giants like Google and Facebook, amassing stunning analytic archives on user behavior—their Likes, search history, and interests—all data that has allowed campaigns to target voter outreach. And they have made 2016 the first campaign cycle in which streaming video platforms such as Facebook Live and Periscope became a regular weapon in the campaign arsenal.
“Now you have to do it to be relevant,” says Koci Hernandez. “There is no choice.”
A recent Pew Research study showed 81 percent of adults in the country now get their news online—almost two-thirds of them through social media sites including Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. The social media number jumps to 84 percent for consumers under 30—three-quarters of whom are likely to see it on a mobile device. Among those over 30, television (particularly cable television) is still the number-one choice for news about the election—but not for long. Already, the habits of Millennials, the largest generation in U.S. history, are influencing the mainstream.
Trump bragged about high Nielsen ratings for his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention—viewed by 29 million Americans—but experts say the impact of such a major political event is increasingly measured elsewhere. Example: In the U.S. alone, social media users generated 167.5 million Facebook Likes, posts, comments, and shares related to the four-day Republican convention in Cleveland, and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia exceeded that by nearly 15 million social media interactions.
One reason: Democrats had the advantage of showcasing a parade of stars from Hollywood and professional sports, including some of social media’s biggest celebrities. One of those was singer Katy Perry, who boasts the largest Twitter following on the planet—91.3 million, more than five times larger than both Clinton (8 million) and Trump (10.6 million) combined. Which meant the pop singer’s enthusiastic “Roar” in support of the first woman presidential candidate of a major U.S. party was heard by a lot of fans—including a key electorate: young professional Millennial women. Of course, there is still no accurate way to predict how many of those 91.3 million Twitter followers will respond to Katy Perry’s enthusiastic endorsement with more than an emoji, although data does support a positive correlation between Google and Twitter usage and electoral results, at least some of the time.
If Facebook popularity translated to votes, then Bernie Sanders would have won in California, where he had 37 percent of the Likes, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 13 percent right before the primary. On the other hand, social media did accurately predict how Britain would go in the Brexit vote. For now, though, the Nielson ratings Trump trumpeted (along with polling; or more accurately, aggregate polling) are still the gold standard for evaluating who will win an election.
That’s because the most reliable voters in the American electorate, dominated by Baby Boomers, are “still glued to TV,” explains Koci Hernandez. According to the Nielson ratings, that cohort gets its news from TV 65 percent of the time. As for polling, there is still no better method for determining how people will cast their vote than by asking lots of them what they plan to do on election day, then cross-checking and weighting that against what other people say, or meta-polling.
So until those Katy Perry tweeters reliably demonstrate real political engagement, social media will be a great way to provide continuous background noise that politicians hope turns into a political rallying cry. “The power of social media is the absolute power to directly reach your particular audience—and to get the direct feedback loop from it,” Koci Hernandez said.
That feedback was apparent on the third night of the Democratic National Convention, when, according to several news sites, there was a sudden spike in Google searches for voter registration forms. But again, reaching people isn’t the same as capturing them. We don’t actually know if that flash of interest in registering to vote was coming from Clinton followers or from Trump supporters.
Other advantages of social media are that it is cheap to employ and easy to use. Thus, in regional and state politics, elected officials and their operatives are finding more and more ways to use it to incite the base. Among them is California’s Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, who at 35 is one of the youngest members of the House of Representatives. He fully grasped the growing influence of creative social-media outreach when he sat on the floor with Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon, during a June Democratic House sit-in for gun safety. When House GOP leaders ordered that the cameras be shut off because Congress was not officially in session, Swalwell said he sought ways to bring the protest to his constituents back in the East Bay. “I thought, ‘There’s an app for that,’” and he turned to Periscope to broadcast the protest all night.
“It was like we were running a cable news station,” says Swalwell, an East Bay Democrat. “We had charger cords everywhere, and I was instructed to get out of the way of the shot.”
Swalwell—who has used Skype to connect with local city council meetings and has earned the title “Snapchat King of Congress”—says he and fellow Democrats “reached more people on this rogue, pirated effort” than he would have from cable TV.
Republican political consultant Matt Shupe, a former spokesman for the state GOP, says the new media tools now afford elected officials and politicians worldwide an unprecedented ability to connect immediately with voters—at every level of the political process. “I have been trying to convert all my clients to Facebook Live,” said Shupe, who worked the digital outreach for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. On the GOP convention Facebook page, “they were livestreaming every single event, and that has multiple advantages. It sends push notifications to all your followers,” he said, “and it’s great for rapid response.”
Such instantaneous communication can be equally effective “when something happens on the floor of the Assembly,” he said. “You can go live on Facebook and say, ‘This is how we did this vote, this is how I feel about it, and this is how it will impact you.’ It’s a selfie, really.”
California Democratic campaign consultant Mike Shimpock agrees that, even in local races, “social media strategy is a ripple strategy,” the modern day equivalent of “the community postcards of olden days—where you would get a stack of cards and mail them out to the rolodex.” He says sophisticated analytics and data now allow a campaign to target voters—with stunning specificity—through their activism, Likes, and involvement in online groups. It’s a development that not only saves campaign cash, but increases the chance of reaching the most likely voters.
This year, Wade Randlett, a longtime Silicon Valley insider and a major fundraiser for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, says he watched Senator Bernie Sanders catapult from a mere footnote to a real threat, largely on the strength of such effective analytics and social media outreach.
“The truth is, Millennial voters are critical—they’re all social-media news gatherers from Snapchat to texting—and Bernie did a great job,” Randlett confirms. “So when Hillary announced that we’re going to register 3 million new voters in 12 states, a disproportionate number are Millennials, and the only way to go find them is through social media.”
But if 2016 has exposed the benefits—and the potentially unlimited horizons—of social media and politics, it has also laid bare the pitfalls.
Donald Trump’s unfiltered, quotable, and often headline-making entries on Twitter have served to reinforce the allegiances of his true believers, even as they’ve also exposed the dangers of what Shimpock calls “the echo chamber, the beast that needs to be fed.”
“Twitter and Instagram are constantly cycling,” Shimpock explains. “So if you’re not constantly in front of your followers, you are losing them.” For many candidates, the intense pressure to stay relevant and in the headlines means “you’re reaching towards the extremes,” he said. “Trump is doing that.”
The GOP candidate, who successfully railed against “Crooked Hillary,” “Little Marco,” and “Lyin’ Ted” in his run-up to the Republican nomination, found himself mired in social media hell in July when he took on the Gold Star mother of a fallen Muslim soldier, Captain Humayun Khan, in the days after the Democratic convention. While many leading Republicans cringed, Trump doubled down on Twitter to rail against the Khan family, CNN, fire marshals in two states, and President Obama—even as polls showed Trump’s approval ratings falling.
Trump has publicly complained that his critics should be blaming the media, not the message. “If I put out a perfectly long, beautifully written press release, nobody uses it,” he said in a televised interview in the days following the Khan controversy. “If I put out a 140-character tweet, they do. ‘Breaking News!’”
Political analyst Jessica Levinson laments that this unusual election cycle has put on display the power of social media both to expand democracy and to erode political discourse. “A 30-second TV ad is not going to give you much substantive information—and arguably you can get more information in a 140-character tweet than in some slate mailers,” she said. “Social media isn’t dumbing us down. We’re dumbing down. The candidates are fulfilling the role of giving us surface information.
“The problem with social media is that your information doesn’t have to be filtered,” she says. “The political conversation has always been supremely shallow—and we’ve just changed the venue for the shallow.”
Nevertheless, Koci Hernandez says, “We’re never going back.” What this presidential campaign has put on display is a new generation for whom “the demand for news, for information, is higher than ever.”
In sheer numbers, Millennials rival Boomers as a political force, but Millennials still have low voter turnout. But candidates and elected officials who hope to reach them, says Koci Hernandez, will need to do that on their terms, in a digital realm that is “mobile, immediate—and on demand.”
Carla Marinucci is a longtime political reporter, currently covering California for Politico.