From the first televised debate to the @POTUS Twitter handle, evolving media technology has consistently changed politicians’ ability to rally attention and affection in the US.
Technology has always had a profound impact on American politics, but the mainstreaming of the internet and social media connectivity has transformed citizens’ expectations for political engagement.
As the first presidential candidate to successfully leverage social media, Barack Obama’s 2007 campaign site garnered more than two million user accounts and prompted visitors to volunteer and share his message, both in person and online. President Trump’s camp paid attention to factors contributing to Obama’s success when he designed his strategy for his 2016 campaign. He cut out the media middlemen and went straight to his followers with unscripted, unpolished messages, and, on occasion, responding to the public directly. With this interactive approach, President Trump became seemingly more accessible to constituents.
Obama Set The Example For Modern Presidents
Obama’s campaign demonstrated that contemporary political success is in large part a measure of brand strength and accessibility. Although most Americans didn’t know who he was before 2007, he defeated household names like Hillary Clinton in the primary and Senator McCain in the general election, by providing his voters with an unprecedented level of access to his personal brand. Prospective voters literally couldn’t find better information elsewhere.
Obama made use of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and even podcasting to ensure that every voter who wanted to engage with his brand and political ideology was able to do so.
With the combined power of digital marketing and an authentic social media presence, Obama leveraged his grassroots movement to earn 70% of the youth vote, break U.S. fundraising records for small donor contributions, and ultimately become America’s 44th President.
What Trump Did Right
I recently spoke to AJ Dellinger from International Business Times about the issue of technology and political engagement, and he explained that “the best thing politicians can do is be proactive in their communication with their constituents.”
President Trump got a head start on his crafting his image as an accessible media personality through his late-night Twitter habits and cameos on fringe conservative talk shows, enabling him to transform his brand from ostentatious real estate tycoon to ubiquitous political figure in a matter of months.
Perhaps most importantly, Trump did all of this while being lambasted by traditional media gatekeepers — he found a style of communicating that resonated with Americans so strongly that it could be disseminated online, no (or few) TV ad buys necessary.
Satellite Today’s Thom Fain elaborated on Trump’s viral success, noting that “he spoke directly with his audience utilizing social media, and made sure he staged large rallies that lent the candidate strength in numbers — his campaign fed off that energy.” In fact, Trump made frequent references to the size and veracity of his rallies during the presidential debates and other press appearances, as this energy was one of the only legitimizing factors for his campaign in its earliest days.
Trump-supporting social media activists worked tirelessly to engineer a relentlessly popular image for their favored candidate, and thus images from these rallies tended to be widely (if not disproportionately) disseminated online.
What’s Left For The Left?
Despite Clinton winning a larger share of the youth vote than Trump did in 2016, overall voter turnout for young people was somewhere around 50%. One might argue that this reflects a widespread lack of political engagement in general that may have ceded victory to Trump’s campaign.
Moving forward, democrats will need to double down on innovative methods to engage citizens and remedy political disillusionment.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign shared the Trump campaign’s penchant for giant, well-publicized rallies, but the campaign also pursued a strategy of direct voter engagement through its use of the Hustle app for SMS communication.
Campaign managers realized that e-mailing and calling potential volunteers was effective for older demographics, but younger Sanders enthusiasts “didn’t pick up the phone.” Mass texts yielded immediate and impressive results: not only did people show up to volunteer, but some even engaged in extended conversations with campaign staffers via text.
Technology Will Bring US Politics Into the Future
The potential for new social media channels to cut out the middleman and enable interactive two-way communication between politicians and constituents is close at hand, and video is already commonplace for political campaigns. By sharing videos on social media, politicians capture the attention of young people who are most at risk of completely disconnecting from the political establishment. As video is the most successful medium to capture the attention of young content consumers, live streaming video content online is “just another tool in the candidate’s digital toolbox,” according to Fain.
However, as Dellinger notes, a recent Congressional proposal which imposes fines on representatives who take videos on the House floor makes it unlikely that legislators will be live streaming from Capitol Hill anytime soon — but “the real power of the technology will be in the hands of a motivated electorate.”
This suggests that the best use of live streaming technology will be in facilitating two-way conversations with their constituents. Politicians need to think beyond broadcasting and get more intimately equated with the idea of direct voter engagement.
And we’ve already seen this strategy work. Grassroots organizations from all over the political spectrum (Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party come to mind) have successfully utilized live streaming platforms to broadcast activist events and protests to gigantic online audiences. In fact, social media activism has encouraged younger, less privileged Americans to participate in a system which would have otherwise discouraged them from doing so.
Most recently, January’s historic Women’s March on Washington began as a Facebook event and grew into possibly the largest demonstration in American history. Mainstream news organizations realized the event’s importance before it began, and outlets from the New York Times to USA Today provided live streams for their audiences. This live video coverage didn’t just amplify the voice of those who protested — it actively empowered all Americans, even those not in attendance, to participate in real time.
Moving forward, engaged constituents may very well use live streaming tools to dynamically broadcast town hall-style conversations between citizens, or between groups of citizens and those who represent them. But the best live streaming strategies will actively empower American voters to engage in a meaningful dialogue with political leadership. That is the most important contributor to a healthy democracy.