Great column! We see more and more candidates entering the fray for the 2020 presidential election. I’m wondering if you can elaborate a little on the candidates’ usage of social media. I follow a few on Twitter and Instagram. I just wonder, based on the things they are tweeting and posting, if it helps or hurts them.
Hi R. G.,
Thank you for writing. You’re right, the field of Democratic presidential candidates is starting to fill up: Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirstin Gillibrand, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang, and Pete Buttigieg – plus seven other candidates who have made it known that they are seriously considering a run for president.
Social media has given people – including congressional and presidential candidates – an unfiltered platform, and no one has perhaps utilized it quite as effectively as President Trump. He bypassed traditional media, using Twitter as his primary mode of communication during the 2016 election season. It was a compelling move, mainly because it allowed him to speak unfiltered – without media spin – to the American people.
The thing about Twitter is: It only allows for 240 characters. It’s effective for clear messaging and touting accomplishments, but only so much can be said in that amount of space. Also, it’s very hard to generate an emotional connection or a likeability factor with Twitter alone – and the 2016 and 2018 elections demonstrated that likeability and emotional connections are key.
Then, there’s Instagram. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old congresswoman from the Bronx, has over two million followers on her personal account. She posts picture and “stories” – video snippets which disappear within 24 hours – of her life. The view from the Amtrak train from New York to Washington. The pizza she is eating (“Best Pizza in the Bronx”). The bills she is working on. Her new friends in Congress. The food she is cooking.
Every time she posts a story, which is usually several times a day, her followers learn more about her – what she’s working on, what she really cares about, how she views the world – and they slowly begin to develop a connection with her. One might argue it is an illusory and one-sided connection, but her name and agenda is out there front and center. She posts Instagram “lives” where viewers can ask her questions and she responds in real time. Ocasio-Cortez also uses Twitter heavily and has over 3.2 million Twitter followers.
Amazingly, an online Axios/Survey Monkey poll found that 74 percent of Democrats or those leaning Democrat were interested in voting for Ocasio-Cortez for president – and 17 percent said they would “definitely” vote for her. The poll surveyed 2,277 people over a two-day period and has a 3.5 percent margin of error.
Online polls (as opposed to more traditional polls) tend to attract self-elected participants, and the minimum age to run for president is 35 – so the results are moot. Nonetheless, it arguably brings to light the benefits, and perhaps necessity, of using social media – specifically social media used by the younger generation – to connect with voters, which might be why Ocasio-Cortez, together with Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, led a workshop in Congress on using Twitter in an effective and authentic manner and digital storytelling.
It might be a good idea for the 2020 presidential candidates to take a page from the playbooks of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez when it comes to their social media outreach. Social media humanizes candidates. Followers become invested in their lives – not only their messaging, but the things they care about as people.
Running for higher office is not about being perfect. It’s about being relatable and fighting for the needs and wants of the populace. In our polarized country where we have so much partisan information at our fingertips, many people just want real-time and unfiltered access to the candidate to make up their own minds.
So, to answer your question as to whether social media helps or hurts candidates running for office: It can be a huge asset and help a candidate stand out from the pack. That being said, digital copy is dangerous in the sense that it is “forever” and, although candidates who have created emotional connection with their followers are often forgiven for indiscretions, tweeting or posting something followers can’t forgive can never be erased.