By Emily Heft
While television and mass media have long played an important role in election seasons, the emergence of social media is much more modern. 2008’s presidential campaign season was characterized by candidates’ online presence, as Barack Obama (and, to a much lesser degree, John McCain) noted and harnessed the emerging power of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and later even Snapchat and Vine, to attract young voters and maintain his brand.
2016 has shown us clearly that social media has the power to ignite and spread campaigns. Each of the five remaining candidates (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump) uses social media’s strengths differently, and all have attempted to tailor different platforms to their campaign’s needs.
Democrats have long held the reputation of being a younger people’s party; thus, logically, Democratic candidates have embraced social media more than their Republican counterparts in the past few elections.
While this election year Donald Trump has had tremendous social media momentum, due in part to his celebrity status, in part to people’s fascination with his outspokenness, and in part to his frequent use of Twitter, Clinton and Sanders’ social campaigns are worth comparing to see how the famously digital Democratic Party is faring.
Hillary Clinton, a favorite among Hollywood elite such as Katy Perry and George Clooney, enjoys the perks of celebrity endorsements that easily reach a majority of voters. She has even appeared on television shows, like The Ellen DeGeneres Show, to appeal to young or tech-savvy voters. While her campaign has a leg up because of this, Clinton’s social media presence is strong in its own right. Clinton’s campaign relies most heavily on Twitter; her Twitter has 6 million followers, while her Facebook has only 3 million and her Instagram only 1 million. Her Twitter influence is broad; the Twitter hashtags #ImWithHer, #ShesWithUs and #TeamHillary allow both celebrities and citizens to tweet messages of support to Clinton. Her official Twitter account, @HillaryClinton, averages 40 tweets per day, and some tweets receive upwards of 10,000 retweets, proving her online platform reaches a large audience. Hillary’s campaign relies upon active citizens to spread the word about primaries and polling places; some tweets provide links to find voting locations, while others ask supporters to retweet to remind others to vote.
Clinton’s Twitter strategy is almost entirely to spread her achievements and platforms, using old news clips proving her track record, small videos showing her with ordinary and relatable supporters, or graphs and charts outlining her success or future plans. Clinton often re-tweets followers and interacts with supporters through Twitter; almost all of her “attack” tweets are re-tweets, and even those are not particularly ruthless. Most tweets simply point out flaws in other candidate’s suggestions, such as the economic inefficiency in Trump’s wall-building plan. Finally, Clinton’s Twitter is powerful as she shows professionalism and class when addressing her opponent Bernie Sanders—she even tweeted congratulations at him following his Wisconsin victory. Clinton appears to want to keep Democrats unified and working towards the common goal of change, rather than promoting her own personal brand and bashing others. However, despite her championing of Twitter, Clinton still struggles to hook millennials and other young voters.
Bernie Sanders’ social media presence and millennial success was surely a shock to even him. The 74-year-old senator is extremely popular among college-age voters, who only somewhat jokingly embrace the hashtag #feelthebern. Because much of Sanders’ appeal is his ability to blend into the masses and seem like “one of us,” it is logical that he would organically find a following among ordinary citizens interacting amongst themselves on social media. Sanders’ Facebook has 4 million followers; his Twitter has 2 million; his Instagram has 1 million.
While Clinton may have more total followers, the baffling momentum of Sanders’ campaign is what is most important to note. Clinton, former first lady and boasting a prominent career in politics, would logically have more followers than a previously inconspicuous Vermont senator, but Sanders is very quickly catching up, thanks largely to his eager followers rather than an industrious social media team. His Facebook posts recently have received more attention than any other candidates; a notable one was his declaration that “America’s first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK,” which received 150,000 “likes.” Sanders’ social media strategy is to intermix declarations of his platform and plans; vintage images of his first days of civil rights movement participation; and photos of the senator with ordinary citizens at rallies and smaller events.
While Sanders does not often attack Clinton, he does so mainly to emphasize her Wall Street connections and supposed corruptness. Sanders’ strategy is to depict himself as a man of the people, and his grassroots funding and tremendous financial support shows that his social media followers successfully spread his message. His campaign also is successful because of young voters who hold small rallies and lead calling efforts for him—these young supporters even use Snapchat and texting to reach possible voters. He has a canvassing app called “Field the Bern” to help these volunteers reach broad audiences. Sanders’ social media presence is spread across platforms; his lack of favoritism of a certain form of social media indicates that he has realized his power and influence among young people, and that he is dedicated to continuing to connect with them through all possible means.