For many of us in the under-30 subset, who’ve grown up with color TV and cable our entire lives, the concept of a presidential election cycle without televised debates, terrifying yet still wholesome TV commercial spots and the constant news cycle is totally incomprehensible. Turn the clock back about fifty years, however, and you’d be looking at the first televised presidential debate; a moment in media history that changed the fact of history and the media industry. The importance of public image through TV catapulted Kennedy into the front of the presidential race, and forever changed how candidates interact with each other, the issues and the American public.
While we’ve come a long way in the fifty-six years since Kennedy and Nixon faced off on television, the American election cycle is changing once again. While this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen social media and web presence as a significant factor in presidential elections, we are now solidly in the social media era of elections. It’s no longer a question of whether a candidate will or won’t use social media, but now a question of which platforms and how often.
Candidates with more social media savvy are picking up traction from younger voters. It also lets the candidates interact more closely with their followers—and each other. This is apparent from frequent interactions between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton on their Twitter accounts. Social media allows candidates to react to issues and each other in real time, turning the internet into a virtual debate stage. Online interactions, like those between Bush and Clinton, can even lead to real-world news; their butting of heads made headlines in both print and on TV—meaning even more exposure for candidates.
Each candidate can also use their social media presence to help solidify their own identity. When Donald Trump fires off a set of seemingly candid, highly controversial tweets, he does so to an audience of nearly 3.9 million followers. His tweets, due to their interactive and often combative nature are retweeted frequently and are highly visible in the media for their fiery nature and quick succession. His campaign also owns the domain name jebbush.com, meaning that when voters search for Jeb Bush, they’re redirected to Trump’s own website, driving his own visibility sky high and making it more difficult for the Bush campaign to establish a foothold online and through search engines.
Clinton’s social media presence is both issue-driven and self-aware. She frequently features selfies and tweets directed at younger female voters. Her first post on Instagram played off a joke from the 2008 election cycle about her penchant for monochromatic pantsuits, which was well received by the app’s users. With accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and Periscope, the Clinton campaign is one of the most active online.
The Sanders Campaign also enjoys high levels of success online with a high proportion of traffic coming from younger voters and campaign supporters. The hashtag #FeeltheBern, supporting the candidate, is one of the highest ranking on Twitter and receives thousands of tweets per day.
One of the most utilized functions of social media online is its ability to call people to action. Candidates can use social media to spread platforms and messages, give information about rallies, meetings and speeches and as a way to solicit donations. Online giving makes donating to campaigns easier than ever, and makes it almost impossible to avoid discussion or mention of the impending election.
While the election is still months away, it is clear already that social media will play a huge role in who will eventually fill the role of President of the United States. The spread of their message, the exposure and the ability to interact with voters makes social media completely indispensable in 2016 for any candidate seriously hoping to contend.