Presidential Hopefuls Try to Capture Millennial Voters Through Social Media

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Since its inception, social media has been considered the best way to connect with Millennials, and politicians have been attempting to harness these networks and turn their users into votes. Here we explore how social media has influenced recent and past campaigns, as well as the forthcoming election in 2016.

Social Media in Past Elections

The rise of social media has changed the election media landscape since it first appeared on the scene during the 2008 election. YouTube and Twitter were both in their infancy, with Twitter having started in July 2006 and YouTube being acquired by Google later that year, leading to its rise as the video sharing site. Apple had just released the original iPhone (and began the advent of the smartphone) in July 2007, and by April 2008, Facebook had only just surpassed Myspace as the most popular social networking site.

Only Barack Obama’s campaign, already with a major focus on the youth vote, was able to really utilize these new tools, and throughout the 2008 campaign his @barackobama account was one of the most followed in the world. This effort paid off massively, earning him 66 percent of the vote for people ages 29 and under.


While they were caught on the back foot in 2008, candidates quickly ramped-up their familiarity with social media. During the 2012 election, every candidate made sure they had an active Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel, as well as at least joining the up and coming social networks like Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat (yes, Romney 2012 had a Tumblr).  Though he lost the election, Romney’s efforts on social media allowed him to improve on McCain’s showing in 2008 and solidify social media as a central pillar of any campaign’s message apparatus, especially messaging aimed at those voters under 30.

Social Media and the Current Political Cycle

For election 2016, social media has become an even more important battleground. The networks have balkanized even more, with a different app for every niche and more ways to connect with more people than ever before. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are still the top dogs, but other social networks are now firmly established. Instagram was bought by Facebook, and has since become one of the most used photo-sharing sites with more than 150 million active users, with 90 percent of those under the age of 35. Along with Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and new live-streaming apps like Meerkat and Periscope offer new ways for candidates to get images and video out as quickly as possible to volunteers and the public. Reddit, and in particular its IAmA subreddit, gives the site’s users the ability to ask candidates questions directly, and while the subreddit only has 10 million subscribers, during sessions with people like Barack Obama in 2012, the influx of traffic can shut down the site.


Even the use of the old guard Big Three has changed, as Facebook has since introduced Facebook Connect, making it easy for its users to use their accounts as logins, allowing candidates access to their personal information for targeting Get Out the Vote efforts. Facebook has also become the largest referral source of social media, with over 38 percent of traffic on other websites being driven there by Facebook. YouTube, which in 2008 was a repository for clips of news show interviews and low quality uploads of television ads, reached maturity for the 2012 campaign, and now candidates make high quality YouTube advertisements and campaign videos that are meant to be shared on the Internet as a first priority. And Twitter has moved from being a side conversation about the issues to being the main conversation, where after a big event, the next goal is to win the conversation about the event that is going on Twitter.

Taken together, the proliferation of smartphones and apps beyond the under-29 demographic has only made social media a more important tool for reaching voters, especially coupled with the rise of cord cutting making tradition TV advertising less effective; and this shows from how the candidates have been using these tools on the campaign trail.

Social Media on the Trail

With the youth vote still massively influential and up for grabs, the early campaign on the Republican side has been largely dominated by social media. The current frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump, has a particular way with Twitter, using it to control the conversation and controversies that have surrounded him since he declared his candidacy, and to directly engage with supporters, opponents and members of the media. His adeptness on Twitter is particularly noticeable when compared to his biggest rival, Jeb Bush, who has tweeted almost 14 times less than Trump, and interestingly enough has 14 times fewer followers.

Dr. Ben Carson, on the other hand, has a small following on Twitter, but has never made Twitter a focus; instead, he focuses on Facebook, where his page has over 2.8 million “Likes” and his posts, which have a frequency of every few hours, garner tens of thousands of shares. Rand Paul has one of the largest subscriber bases among the candidates on YouTube, where he posts a video every few days, and made waves in July when he posted a video of himself destroying the pages of the tax code in various ways. The video has garnered him over 150,000 views on this channel alone.

Beyond Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, candidates have been using the newer networks to build excitement for their campaigns. Scott Walker used Instagram’s grid format to tease his launch, uploading one picture per day for nine days until it revealed his campaign logo.

On the Democrat side, things have been a bit more muted. Hillary Clinton, who has been focusing her campaign on connecting with everyday Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire, joined Snapchat in early July (a short clip of her “chillin” in Cedar Rapids quickly became a meme on Vine), and started posting to her Snapchat story in August. Her biggest rival, Bernie Sanders, has favored a more organic approach. Instead of using social media himself, he has benefited from his most ardent supporters using social media to gin up huge crowds for his rallies, which have consistently amassed some of the biggest crowds so far this election season. Martin O’Malley has designed his logo around a common image of text message bubble, a nod to the main method of communication.

The 2016 election has more candidates, on more social networks, interacting directly with more people than ever before. Social media has allowed voters to truly interact with their favorite (or least favorite) candidates, and it continues to drive the political conversation, especially among voters under 30.

Images: Reuters via the New York Post , Barak Obama Twitter

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About Miller Stichnoth

Miller Stichnoth writes media updates and occasional features for the Cision Blog. He is a Media Researcher on Cision’s print team, specializing in magazines. When not researching or writing, he's reading about politics and history, or continuing his journey to try every food truck in Chicago.

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