The impact of social media on political campaigns has been profound. Typically on this blog, we focus on social media’s effect on consumer behavior. But, social media also dramatically disrupted the political campaign playbook. We’ll look at the new social media and political campaigns matrix and how the game has changed.
Erasing the Incumbency Advantage
Running a campaign takes a lot of money. Advertising alone requires millions of dollars, especially if one is running a statewide or national campaign. Unless a candidate is very wealthy, like Michael Bloomberg, who spent $1 billion of his own money, he or she has to raise this money from donors.
Without a personal fortune, candidates lacking the money-raising skills of other more well-known individuals faced a difficult challenge. According to research, more than 90 percent of incumbents in recent years were successful in their re-election campaigns. The advantage of incumbency causes many good potential candidates never to enter the race.
But the tide is turning. Candidates can quickly build voter support and raise money from the comfort of their home or campaign office. Social media enables them to reach anyone with an internet connection. The barriers of money and name recognition are falling.
Grassroots Took Place on the Streets
Besides raising money, the two most crucial elements in a successful political campaign are messaging and “get out the vote.” A candidate has to get his or her message out to the voters and be sure they turn out on election day.
Before global digitalization, getting out the message required a lot of legwork. Candidates would attend rallies, picnics, school board meetings, houses of worship, farmers’ markets, birthday parties, and any public place or event in their district. Of course, there were press conferences and appearances on local television stations.
The candidate’s message, i.e., campaign promises and positions, was strategically crafted and printed in various forms. The most popular vehicle were brochures that volunteers could carry when they canvass neighborhoods to do “lit drops.” In the final days leading up to the election, these lit drop campaigns intensified. Most of those flyers ended up in the trash.
Candidates still go to public rallies and events. They make for great photo opportunities. But by using social media channels, they can quadruple the number of “events” they create.
Social Media Replaced Door Knocking
Congressional or local municipal candidates would typically go door-to-door during the final weeks of the campaign. Senators running in low-population states would do the same. It was a time-honored political campaign tactic designed to encourage the base and change the minds of those sitting on the fence. But this was the candidate coming to your house. And you needed to be home, of course. So the door-knocking strategy was time-limited or even perhaps disruptive.
Today, candidates can hop on their social media channels and visit with you “from their home.” You can meet the kids, spouse, and family dog. You get to see how they furnish their homes and learn about their hobbies, favorite sports teams, musicians, and restaurants. It’s a level of personal interaction never before possible on such a large scale. Voters don’t need to be home, the posts enjoy a long shelf life, and if you’re not interested, you don’t have to visit their channels.
The Impact of Social Media on Political Campaign Fundraising
In the days before social media, fundraising was a laborious undertaking. A candidate needed to attend numerous fundraising events, from small in-home parlor parties to lavish events designed to rake in the big bucks. The campaign fundraiser was one of the most critical positions.
Social media makes it possible for candidates, new or incumbent, to spread their message more widely, expand brand recognition, and raise money. Because social media allows for a global reach, candidates can raise money even from people not in their district. People who merely agree with the candidates’ position may be inclined to give financial support. Campaign staff can quickly organize fundraising campaigns directly on social media channels. Or, social media posts can link followers to other fundraising platforms.
Compared to television ads, the cost of advertising on social media channels is minimal. According to an ABA article, “Political Advertising on Social Media Platforms,” candidates spent roughly $1.4 billion to run online political ads in the last election. Using the same microtargeting strategy that brands utilize to target their ads, candidates can reach segments of the online audience more likely to respond to a particular message. Campaigns can create different messages for targeted groups. This is a significant advantage over print or television ads that need to be more generic and allow no control over delivery.
Social Media Changed the Way Political Campaigns Deal With Crises
Before the internet, if a candidate made a blunder, you could count on a minimum 24-hour cycle before anyone knew about it. In the meantime, staff could begin clean-up work. If a negative report was aired on television, you could hope that no one saw it. The candidate or his/her staff could quickly work to bury the story.
In the area of crisis management, social media is a mixed blessing for political campaigns. Digital channels make it easier for candidates to reach their audience. However, a negative story can travel around the globe in seconds. The candidate can make a blunder in a tweet or live feed, and the impact can spread like wildfire. For instance:
- Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke took personalization a little too far by inviting his online audience to join him at the dentist.
- Senator Warren’s beer-drinking episode netted her quite a bit of negative comments, re-tweets, and memes.
Anxious to get in on a hot news story, candidates can quickly post their opinion and solution without knowing the facts. How many times have politicians needed to delete or correct their tweets?
A strong social listening strategy is imperative for political campaigns.
Before social media, political campaigns could slow down the spread of a negative story. With the right connections, they could even bury it. Today, a regretted Tweet or Facebook post can make it around the world before the political campaign has a chance to pull it back. Fumbled apologies or explanations can derail the campaign.
Global digitalization is impacting every facet of our lives. Politics is no exception. Candidates today can go on social audio platforms and talk to a room of thousands. Voice posts add a new element to platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
The ability to reach an organic audience is virtually unlimited. Yet, at the same time, the pitfalls of social media can bring down a political campaign much more quickly than ever before.