Presidential Politics and Social Media

The old saying is that when in polite company, one should never talk about religion or politics. But in the age of the internet, let’s face it: politics has gone social.

With the election year officially here, and primaries and caucuses underway, social media is aflutter. There is no shortage of comments, articles and ads by which voters are inundated, regardless of political party and regardless of intention to vote. Each election cycle in recent history has brought with it increased media spending, new platforms for political conversation, and advances in voter targeting.

After the 2012 election, Gurbaksh Chahal predicted that social media coupled with big data would determine the U.S. president in 2016. He writes, “Now, we can track pretty much anything online — our campaign decisions are influenced by factors that extend far beyond the impression and conversion metrics that permeated the ad industry just five years ago. This data-centric shift in advertising has enabled political parties to hone campaign approaches toward predicting outcomes and undeniably, it is this elegant blend of social data, big data, and targeting that will determine the 2016 Commander-In-Chief.”

Well, here we are in 2016 with only eight months to go until Election Day. Can we tell if this prediction is coming true? According to campaign tech guru Joe Trippi, not only is it true, but the 2016 cycle is all about the digital team. “I tell them to put the digital team right outside the campaign manager's door. That's where I put the digital team. Digital is the core of today's campaigns. Every department in the campaign needs to understand that. You need to work with the digital team if you are going to be successful.”

Trippi further explains, though, that campaign innovation in social media isn’t coming by empowering the masses like we saw in 2004 and 2008. That actually leveled off in 2012, and in 2016 innovation is focused on data mining and analytics. Social media analytics are being used to determine voter pools.  These can be grouped by geography, age, political behavior or sentiment, and more. Within those voter pools, it helps identify what the right messages are, what the best timing is for those messages, and how many resources are needed to motivate that pool with far greater accuracy than ever before.

For 2016, according to the Huffington Post and Wired, it is estimated that political ad spending will reach $11.4 billion, which is 20 percent more than the 2012 presidential election. And of that, social media spending could be roughly $500 million. Considering a 2012 study, “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,” that concluded in part that a single “Facebook social message increased [2010] turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.” Now consider what kind of turnout is possible when significant dollars can get more messages out more frequently. It all combines to guide strategists toward the best success possible.

But social media hasn’t just been reduced to number-crunching. This cycle it has been home to some of the funniest, most helpful and most cutting reactions to candidates. Case in point, #FeeltheBern was started by grassroots supporters for Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders and earned 2.5 million impressions just in June 2015.

Between candidates and campaign strategies, technology and talking points, 2016 is shaping up to be one for the history books. 

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