In the nearly two decades since I wrote the first book on how politicians and political groups use the Internet, surprisingly little has changed.
For the most part, campaign organizations have been doing the same things they were doing in the 1996 Presidential election, with the major changes mostly reflecting the availability of new technology, such as when the Obama campaign made Big Data a priority in 2012.
But one thing that I missed when I wrote “Politics on the Nets” was the role of social media. The reason, of course, is that the social media that we’re familiar with now simply didn’t exist in those days. But the world changes and even the most perceptive observers can find themselves outdated. Such is the case now.
A good example of the growth in importance of social media can be seen in how this relatively new medium was used in the announcements by the first four presidential candidates as they kicked off their campaigns for 2016.
It’s worth noting that so far every candidate and most anticipated candidates are already using social media to get their messages out. Twitter seems to be especially popular, with three of the four candidates using it to formally announce their run for the White House.
It all started with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who announced that he would announce his candidacy on Twitter, which he did with a simple, “I’m running for President and I hope to earn your support!”
Not long after that, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) did the same thing when he issued an announcement Tweet, “Today I announce my candidacy for President of the United States!”
A few days later, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed suit, “I’m running for president. Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” she said.
In all three cases, the Twitter announcement did indeed precede the official speech, video or other formal announcement, but it seemed almost perfunctory, as if the candidate used Twitter because they knew it was expected so that the candidate could portray themselves as being trendy especially to younger potential supporters. But, it’s hard not to look perfunctory when you are announcing a presidential candidacy in a tweet limited no more than 140 characters.
The most recent candidate to announce his intent to seek the Presidency was Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who interestingly did not make his formal announcement first on Twitter, but perhaps demonstrated a better way of using this social media platform.
Sen. Rubio made his announcement in a live speech with his staff live-Tweeting most of the speech as he made it. As a result, the social media announcement came shortly after he made it live in his speech in Miami.
The timing of the announcement doesn’t mean that Rubio’s social media engagement is somehow less than the other three candidates. First of all, Rubio’s staff provided the content of the speech on a minute by minute basis during the announcement, allowing potential backers to follow along even if they didn’t have access to a video feed or a television.
Rubio also kept up a continuous stream of Tweets giving a countdown leading up to what he called “The big announcement.”
Presidential Candidates Display Social Media Savvy With Twitter Tweets
Clearly, there was no mystery as to what constituted that event, which gave Rubio the ability to stretch out his announcement, without actually announcing anything right away.
In Rubio’s case this stretching out of the announcement and resulting social media engagement was important. His announcement followed the long-awaited statement by Hillary Clinton that she was entering the presidential race.
As a result he was able to keep his candidacy in the public eye, despite the activities of a much better-known opponent. The plan paid big dividends as the national media continued to give Rubio’s ambitions coverage alongside Clinton’s.
Meanwhile, all four of the candidates have continued their social media presence, but initially only Rubio and Paul worked constantly on engaging their followers. Paul, interestingly, was capitalizing on the usefulness of the Internet for fundraising, with a steady stream of donation requests.
The effectiveness of this social media engagement remains to be seen. In Rubio’s case it plays directly into his positioning as the candidate of the future. For Paul it works because of the Internet’s ability to be a path for grassroots forces, which is how Paul is positioning his campaign.
The bigger question is whether any of this activity will help one of these candidates President of the United States. Obviously we won’t get a chance to find out for sure for at least a year and a half.
But we may get a good idea sooner than that. After all, before any candidate can stand for election, they need to be nominated, and that means success in the primaries and state caucuses that will be held in the first half of 2016.
If a candidate manages to motivate their target audience to come out with substantial support, that can lead to a nomination. Rubio needs to appeal to younger voters and to folks with immigrant backgrounds in addition to the greater Republican electorate and a social media campaign is a natural way to get to those extra voters.
Paul needs to appeal to long-time Republicans who may feel left out of the party’s mainstream movement and Twitter may work for those as well. The other candidates are able to depend on core donors and the party faithful, so for them, social media is less critical, at least for now.
But taken as a marketing problem and after all that’s what political campaigns really are, it seems that building the customer base through social media could give candidates an edge they might otherwise not have. It could be enough to give the candidate with the right communications skills and a staff with social media skills a way to keep their name relevant during the run-up to the election.
Now it depends on whether any of these candidates can take gain traction with primary voters with what they’ve done so far. But it also depends on who else enters the party primary races and how well they are prepared to play the social media game. But done well and with the right, focus social media could provide a crucial edge that wins one of the candidates the nomination.