POTUS 2016 and the Power of Social Media: Is Social Media the Campaign Platform of the Future?

Hillary Clinton’s stand on immigration, Jeb Bush’s opinion on foreign policy, Donald Trump’s plans for the economy–all of these comprise the discussions on policy issues being bandied about by news networks. However, with the decreasing viewership of traditional media, and the increasing use of social media, the general reach and connection of a presidential hopeful into the average citizen’s life becomes significantly skewed towards the latter.

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Sitting and cheering one’s favored presidential candidate as he speaks on the living room TV set is not half as satisfying as hitting “Like,” “Share,” “Favorite,” or “Retweet” on a social media site in reaction to that very same speech. Doing so is a personal decision made public. Instead of just saying, “Yes, I watched his campaign speech,” it becomes “Yes, I ‘Liked’ it on Facebook.” It becomes an instant display of opinion, and opinion opens doors for discussion.

According to the Pew Research Center, in the 2012 elections, around a third of the registered voters were encouraged to vote for either Romney or Obama on Facebook and Twitter. One-fifth used their social media accounts to encourage others to vote. In addition, around a fourth of registered voters promoted voting indirectly by updating their Facebook statuses or Tweeting that they were done voting.

These social media users are not just making noise, they are having an impact on elections. The Democrats and liberals especially have the advantage when it comes to politics on social media. A third of Democrat social media users describe themselves as being more active in politics after discussing it on social media. This is compared to a fourth of Republicans and a fourth of Independents who say the same. Over a third of liberal social media users say that their political activities increased after discussions on social media, compared to a fourth of conservatives and a fifth of moderates.

Discussion causes the declaration of opinion, which means ownership of it, and a desire to defend it. And the most basic way that can be done is through participation in the elections. Social media is not a platform that the 2016 presidential hopefuls can ignore, because this kind of interaction with voters causes the candidates to become real people to them and can make a huge difference in major swing states.

Social Media and the Obama Presidential Campaign

While it may be a coincidence that the first Obama presidential campaign started during the rise of Twitter as a social media platform, Obama’s campaign staff grabbed at the networking site with both hands. Obama won the youth in 2008 with 66% of the 18-29 age bracket, and again in 2012, with 60% of the 18-29 age bracket. This is compared to the average of 45% in the same age bracket combining the results of Clinton and Bush in 1996, 2000, and 2004.

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What this phenomenon points to is the importance that social media is likely to take in the 2016 presidential elections. As the number of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram users rises, the presidential hopefuls who can harness and keep up with the ebb and flow of the social media tide will have a definite edge over their opponents.

Who is in Reach?

Over a third of Americans over 18, and around 70% of registered voters, are using social media sites for political activities. Going by party, over 70% of both Democrats and Independents use social media, followed by Republicans with 65%. Ideologically, around 80% of liberals use social media sites, followed by the moderates at 70%, and conservatives at around 65%. In other words, presidential hopefuls can potentially reach the majority of their voters through social media alone.

Looking even more closely at the demographics, the reach of social media can be narrowed down. According to the Pew Research Center poll on social media user demographics post-2012 elections, 71% of women use social networking sites, compared to 62% of men. This gives Hillary Clinton a slight advantage on this platform. When it comes to ethnicity, Hispanics are the highest social media users at 72%, followed by Blacks at 68%, and Whites at 65%. This gives the social media advantage to the Democrats.

The 18-29 age bracket will be a group to watch if social media does take over campaigns for the 2016 presidential elections. 83% of this bracket use social media, compared to 77% of the 30-49 age bracket, 52% of the 50-64 age bracket, and 32% of the 65+ age bracket.

Facebook and Twitter remain the most important social media platforms. Although Facebook usage has not changed from 2013 to 2014 at 71%, Twitter is gaining popularity, gaining five percentage points to become 23% in 2014. Presidential hopefuls who effectively use these platforms will have a clear advantage on the social media side.

Who is Online?

Of the popular presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton is the latest to have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon (2013, as compared to Jeb Bush in 2010, Ted Cruz in 2009, and Marco Rubio in 2008). However, as a tool to presidential campaigning, she has has leapt way ahead of the others. Her eye is keen to the importance of being a person to voters and not simply another politician.

This is reflected in her Twitter profile, describing her as a: “Wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate.” She even displays a sense of humor and some personal preferences, describing herself as a “hair icon, pantsuit aficionado.”

Hillary-Clinton-Twitter

By contrast, Jeb Bush describes himself as the “43rd Governor of the State of Florida.” In other words, he probably has not updated his profile since he started his Twitter Account. Bernie Sanders’ says: “I believe America is ready for a new path to the future.” Marco Rubio? “I’m running for President of the United States of America.” Ted Cruz? “U.S. Senator from Texas and candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States.”

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Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz were the first to declare their candidacies on Twitter, at the same time as they were making their official announcements. Others are catching up as well as they can, perhaps having miscalculated how fast social media moves, and how quickly news goes “viral” with the power of “Share,” “Retweet,” and “Reblog” at the tips of so many fingers simultaneously.

Jeb Bush’s social media platform of choice is Instagram. There are 300 million Instagram users, compared to over 250 million for Twitter, and it is probably the idea of his campaign staff to utilize the massive reach of this social media platform. This is where Bush declared his presidency, as well as on Facebook. However, Fusion gives him a B for Facebook use, a C for Twitter use, and an INC for Instagram use. His reach, LioGiurato and Fabian say, will only start to improve when he starts to engage his followers directly. The US News was not half as gentle–they outright failed him for social media blunders. So far, even his Instagram posts are limited to those declaring his intentions to run.

However, if the presidential elections were conducted right this minute on the basis of social media following, according to this chart, Donald Trump would be President of the United States. Already commanding a large social media following due to his career, his Youtube and Facebook followers are nearing the 5 million mark.

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But Hillary Clinton is close behind, passing the 4.5 million mark on Facebook and Youtube. She also commands the highest Twitter following, with over 3.5 million followers, and clearly beats Trump at Instagram, with over 4.5 million followers.

Rand Paul was a surprise tech-savvy hopeful, and follows Clinton but not closely, with only a little over 2.5 million Facebook likes, and Youtube and Instagram followers. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are 6th and 7th in line, both just slightly passing the 1.5 million mark of Facebook likes. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, the Florida favorites, are far below this, barely hitting the 0.5 million mark for Facebook likes.

Social media presence is not an automatic key to the presidency, although Obama has shown that it might become a major one. However, if it is a question of instant reach and connection to voters and citizens of the United States, those with higher social media followings will start the war on a footing that should help them through the campaigning this early in the presidential game.

Social Media: the Campaign Platform of the Future?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt unlocked the power of the radio during his campaigns, and even throughout his presidency, encouraging the American people during the Depression. John F. Kennedy proved the power of television in the elections against Nixon, when his clean, fresh appearance won voters over the sickness-shadowed one of his opponent. And Obama clearly displayed the power of social media over Mitt Romney and even Hillary Clinton in the 2012 elections.
Presidential campaigning has passed the point of no return when it comes to using social media as a platform. And while social networking was new enough that Obama could still stun his opponents with canny usage, that is no longer the case. The 2016 elections will show who has learned from the mistakes of the past, and who will make the best use of this campaigning platform in the months to come.

About the author

Esther has a B.A. in Humanities and an M.A. in Political Economy. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing Sequence with her family, training in Aikido, and curling up with coffee and a good book.