Waite: Dems lost social media advantage
In 2008, America encountered the “Facebook Election” as political candidates, then-Sen. Barack Obama in particular, first used social media as an integral campaign tool. Seven years later, Republican Party candidates and their strategists have learned from the Democratic president how to effectively harness the power of Web 2.0 technologies.
Today, sites like Facebook and Twitter have become ubiquitous with political campaigns at all levels of government. This has resulted in both excitement and consternation, particularly among Republicans seeking the nation’s highest office.
Unlike previous election cycles, when campaigns’ use of social media was considered a novelty, candidates now have a better understanding of the nuances of social media and their impact.
Candidates know if they use these sites effectively, they can mitigate the impact of traditional gatekeepers, particularly during the early stages of the campaign season. Campaigns can now craft and deliver content and engage with the public on their own terms, often avoiding tough questions from journalists.
Furthermore, they can tout the number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers they have, as well as the amount of engagement (e.g., likes, comments, favorites and retweets), to make it difficult for party leaders and the media to ignore them.
As a result, candidates — particularly antiestablishment ones — are finding it easier to get their presidential campaigns off the ground. This helps to explain the fact that 17 Republicans have launched campaigns seeking their party’s nomination.
These candidates have found social media useful for attacking their competitors, as well as framing their own campaigns as successful. More than one candidate pointed to their social media metrics as evidence they were victorious during the first televised debate.
Ben Carson claimed victory based on the fact that he picked up nearly a quarter of a million new fans on Facebook following the event and led the pack in page interactions with nearly 1.5 million likes, comments and shares. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s declaration of victory following the first televised debate was bolstered by the addition of nearly 115,000 Twitter followers and nearly five times as many favorites and retweets than any other candidate on the stage.
For some voters, social media lends a refreshing amount of unpredictability and a sense of excitement to American politics as these Republicans not only battle each other, but Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic Party favorite. Others worry that a crowded primary field and bitter infighting among candidates are diluting the Republican Party’s message.
In the end, just like television commercials, radio advertisements and billboards, social media should provide another decision-making tool for voters, but one that Republicans, like Democrats, have found to be an easy way to reach millions of Americans via their smartphones.
Brandon Waite is a political science professor at Ball State University.