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When U.S. Senate candidate John James tweets, tens of thousands of people notice.

The 37-year-old combat veteran and Detroit business owner is a regular on social media, frequently sharing video selfies from the campaign trail. James recently posted a video message to his followers on Twitter as he drove to the doctor’s office with his wife to see an ultrasound of their new baby — as of this writing, it has been viewed more than 29,000 times. (By comparison, Twitter videos by his opponent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow only receive 2,000 to 5,000 views.)

James hasn’t always had an audience that big. In fact, just a little over a year ago, most Michigan voters didn’t know his name. But today he has nearly 90,000 followers on Twitter and 76,000 Facebook fans; it’s a virtual audience of supporters who look forward to the latest online update from his campaign. 

“We’re successful on social media because John is likable, engaging and interesting,” says Tori Sachs, James’ campaign manager. “I don’t think you could put other people on live video every single day and get that kind of engagement. It’s not forced, it’s not scripted."

This is campaigning in the age of social media, where candidates self-produce messages with a smartphone and connect to voters instantly. But just because social media is free doesn’t mean every candidate uses it — or that those who use it are good at it. Some, in fact, stubbornly resist it.

In 2014, long after President Barack Obama demonstrated the power of connecting with voters online, I sat beside a state legislator at a luncheon in Lansing when the subject of social media came up. My job, I explained to him, was to manage social media for Gov. Rick Snyder. “I don’t do Facebook,” he curtly replied. “But my wife is always playing games on her iPhone.” Technology was swiftly passing him by.

I saw the dawn of social media in political campaigns during the 2008 election. I was campaign manager for a Republican congressman in Oakland County who was facing the re-election fight of his career. Americans were tired of the war in Iraq, the economy was near meltdown, and passions were running hot. Taking a cue from presidential candidate Howard Dean’s breakthrough use of the internet in his failed presidential campaign, liberal activists mobilized online as a united political front against the GOP.

The congressman’s campaign felt the sting of that activism at the hands of a liberal protester armed only with a video camera, a blog, and some Internet savvy. On a Saturday morning in downtown Rochester, the protester confronted the candidate on the campaign trail, stuck a video camera in his face, and got into a heated argument with the congressman’s chief of staff. The embarrassing moment was recorded, posted online, went “viral,” and was a featured story on MSNBC that night. It was my first lesson in the power of social media.

America at large learned the impact of a tweet in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump used Twitter to great effect, circumventing the media and delivering a message directly to the country. Not every candidate is Trump, and success online doesn’t guarantee victory at the ballot box. But in an era when traditional media is in decline and eyes are turning online, social media can be one powerful way for candidates to reach voters who are connected. And as the James campaign has seen from its online success, the message—and the messenger—matter.

Mike Brownfield is communications director for the Goldwater Institute and formerly served as director of social media for Gov. Rick Snyder.

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