Without social media, there would not be a President Trump. We all felt the Bern in 2016. And let’s not forget “pizzagate” or “Yes we can”. The power of technology has undeniably impacted elections for political office, but how does it influence voters’ decisions on election day? Is social media the lone culprit undermining the integrity of our democracy or does history offer insights of sobering nature? These and other questions are subject to analysis by Anthony J. Gaughan with Drake University. Here’s a rundown of his paper “The Influence of Technology on Presidential Primary Campaigns”
The paper examines technological innovations impacting Presidential primary campaigns. Supreme Court decisions Buckley v. Valeo or Citizens United v. FEC appear to have paved the regulatory playing field towards unrestricted campaign spending. Contrary to popular belief, Presidential primary campaigns are not skewed to the wealthiest of candidates. They simply favor the Presidential candidate who is most savvy of current technology to leverage his audience for the benefit of the campaign.
Gaughan starts his analysis as early as 1912 when Presidential primary campaigns relied on the rail network to expose the candidate to crucial constituents. The radio would bring about change by offering a low cost, easy and broad access medium available to the general public. It would demonstrate that a candidate with an ability to make his audience feel they know him like nobody else could overcome other limitations of his persona. By the early 1950s, television would enter the scene to influence voters. The Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy overcame incredible odds of winning the Protestant state of West Virginia despite being of Catholic belief by leveraging TV ads displaying himself as a handsome, professional leader who “would not take orders from any Pope, Cardinal, Bishop or Priest”. Television gave rise to Roger Ailes and others who would reshape the appearance of political candidates for public office. Most notable in the 1968 Presidential primary campaign of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s “funny-looking” appearance would be carefully marketed by only distributing selected shots, accompanied by strong sound tracks and professional flattery – in the process beating Nelson Rockefeller and former president Ronald Regan.
Gaughan concludes his analysis with the emergence of the internet. Senator Barack Obama managed to outfox Senator Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Presidential primary campaign by leveraging social media that allowed his campaign to build a volunteer network that utilized data analytics to identify potential voters and could eventually outperform the Clinton campaign in the majority of voting metrics. The internet also offered a platform to establish direct communication with his constituents. Obama’s success, however, inspired a real-estate business man and reality TV-celebrity from the other end of the political spectrum. It gave rise to Donald J. Trump. Trump took the Regan playbook of celebrity fame gone politics and merged it with 21st century innovations. On Twitter and Facebook, the Trump campaign selectively spent ads in crucial swing states to gain political momentum with polarizing memes and divisive content. His existing television fame helped with national recognition, but the free coverage generated through the power of social networks put him over the edge to beat established Republican candidates, front and center of the voter.
The paper concludes that the 2016 Presidential primary campaign was a harbinger of things to come. It is not far-fetched to reason that internet communication will continue to boost political speech across new platforms like TikTok or through new mediums such as virtual or augmented realities. Political candidates entering a primary race can leverage these tools by hiring campaign staff who are native in social media communications, possess the ability to detect the pulse of not only millennial and adolescent voters but the party’s voter base beyond retirement age and everybody in between. New tools to analyze, scale and engage audiences that most platforms offer as part of the advertisement deal have the power to enable political novices to make a bid for office. From a regulatory point of view, legislators must revisit campaign spending to level the playing field for networking effects that come with social media. In the interest of the voter, fair and democratic elections, it might be advised to not focus future legislation on campaign spending in the sense of financial assets but the actual reach of audience including the means to facilitate the reach.