In the aftermath of President Obama’s 2012 election victory, one of the main narratives was the advantage Democrats held over Republicans in use of social media. In what has become known as the “first social election,” Barack Obama’s social media team engaged young people through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other popular sites.
As Republicans look forward at the 2016 elections, their goal is clear: narrow the gap between themselves and Democrats when it comes to social media engagement. This has become increasingly important at a time when 60 percent of adults use social media and 66 percent of users share their political thoughts on social networks, according to the Pew Research Center. These numbers make it essential for candidates to engage their constituency on social media.
Nicole Davies, a full-time staff member at American University who teaches the social media class in the Discover the World of Communication program, said that running a social media campaign is “essential” to winning a national election.
“Political culture was able to thrive over social media,” Davies said. “With the debates being televised, there was an ongoing dialogue over Twitter.”
The conversation over social media engaged the whole country. The presidential debates were among the most popular, with the second debate reaching third on the year’s top social media events. The constant interaction provided a forum for people to express their opinions.
From the start of the campaign, Obama had the “immediate advantage,” said Ashley Codianni, a producer at NowThis News, a digital news network producing original, social and mobile news.
During the last election cycle, Obama had more than 19 million Twitter followers while Romney had 1.5 million. Obama had 28 million Facebook followers while Romney had 1.5 million, Codianni said.
“If you’re not engaging the young generation, you’re alienating a huge voter base,” she said.
While it promoted serious discussion, social media was also an arena for jokes. Memes like the “Laughing Joe Biden” and “Clint Eastwood’s Chair” became social media sensations within minutes of airing. The informality of political discussion engaged a new generation that may not have been interested previously.
Celebrities also took to their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages to engage in the conversation and promote their favored candidate. Celebrities popular amongst young people like, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Neil Patrick Harris and Eva Longoria used their social media accounts to strongly support Obama. Romney’s celebrity endorsements were less popular among young people, including Donald Trump, Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris.
“[GOP] needs more support from celebrity figures,” Davies said. “Beyonce’s first Instagram was in support of Barack Obama. Republicans need to utilize other figures in that environment.”
So, looking to 2016, how do Republicans go about bridging the technology gap? For starters, make the candidates more relatable.
“Republicans have a lot of catching up to do, but these next few years leading up to the election are a fresh start,” said Codianni, the NowThis News producer.
But Democrats still have a huge advantage. Potential frontrunners for the Democrats in 2016, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, already have a huge presence on social media. Clinton, who recently joined Twitter, has proved that she is engaged with the millennial generation on social media. The “Hillary Texting” meme which first gained popularity on Tumblr has captured the attention of the former Secretary of State and is now her twitter icon.
As Davies notes: “It will take a lot of work and a brilliant campaign [for the Republicans]. At this point they do have a lot of catching up to do.”