Digital Politics Expert Explains Impact of Candidates Establishing a Visible Online Presence

By Tom McLaughlin

Throughout the primary season thus far, much attention has focused on presidential candidates who – for one reason or another – are seeking online dominance, whether it is through multimillion-dollar ad campaigns or having a very vocal support network, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders. In another respect, President Donald Trump is more vocal than ever on Twitter.

So, have we reached an age where establishing a digital presence – and better yet, dominance – matters in elections? To answer that question, we check in with Tim Knievel, an assistant teaching professor of political science, who teaches a course in digital politics at Rutgers University–Camden.

So let’s get to it: Does having an online presence matter?

It’s hard to make the case that it doesn’t matter; the question is, how much does it matter? It also depends what you mean by “presence.” In 2020, we’d think it rather odd if any candidate for high office didn’t have official social media accounts, but not all candidates engage with social media as consistently or personally as others. Clearly, none compare to the president’s use of social media at this point.

One recent op-ed, which was cited by NBC political director Chuck Todd, negatively cited Bernie Sanders’ online followers and questioned whether candidates can succeed without “an online mob.” Is such boisterous – and some would say vitriolic – support positive or detrimental to his campaign?

Detrimental. Sanders never appears particularly comfortable having to defend the excesses of his supporters – whether humans or “bots.”

Along the same lines, is Trump’s tweeting a powerful medium for him, or do his messages run the risk of getting lost in the noise from overuse?

In 2016, Donald Trump utilized what’s been referred to as a “hybrid media campaign” – he used social media both to get his message out, and to create new content for the “traditional” media to talk about. This was quite effective. As we’ve seen time and again, the president has used social media as an agenda-setting platform that clearly allows him to get an unfiltered version of his message out to the people – and to send signals to Congress and members of his administration.

Sure, there is a risk of his message getting lost in the sheer volume of output, but that was also the case in 2016.

Is it helpful or not for politicians to communicate directly with the masses via social media?

To an extent, that depends on how you’re defining “helpful.” During his years as a public figure in New York, President Trump spent significant sums of money placing full-page ads in newspapers to communicate his views about a wide range of issues, including U.S. trade with Japan, the case of the Central Park Five, and so on. Now, he can provide an unfiltered message to the people via social media for free. So, I would say it’s helpful for politicians, certainly; whether it’s helpful to the people is another matter.

What impact do campaign finances have on the ability to create online sites and/or disseminate ads online?

Candidates are permitted to spend as much of their own personal money as they like; this allows people like Mayor Bloomberg to flood the field with ads. Super PACs are also able to spend an unlimited amount of funds on ads, provided that they’re not crafted in direct consultation with a particular campaign.

According to one estimate, Bloomberg, who dropped out of the race, spent $1 million a day on Facebook ads. Did this spending give him any advantage over other candidates or did he just waste his money?

I would think that we should wait and see how the primaries – not to mention the general election – play out before we make any sweeping statements about the effectiveness of online campaign spending. Suffice to say, however, Mr. Bloomberg’s vaunted ad campaign didn’t net him much. As of the morning after Super Tuesday, when he dropped out of the race, he won a total of 44 delegates in the Democratic primaries, which put him far behind the more than 300 won by former Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders.

It’s also worth noting that as recently as November, President Trump’s campaign was outspending his Democratic rivals by a very wide margin.

Are candidates looking to digital media to allocate more of their campaign spending, and how do you foresee the trend continuing?

I think it’s all but inevitable that campaigns will allocate an increasingly large share of their campaign resources to online campaigning; certainly, that’s been the trend in recent years. According to a 2017 Borrell Associates report, total digital campaign spending increased from $159 million in 2012 to $1.4 billion in 2016. Even in 2016, though, that $1.4 billion figure was less than 20 percent of all campaign spending. So yes, I think one should reasonably expect this trend to continue, but I don’t expect that digital campaigning will entirely eclipse “classic” advertising like TV ads and flyers sent in the mail in the short term.

Is there anything else that campaigns can do via digital media to better curry voter support?

One thing to keep an eye on is how campaigns utilize micro-targeted advertising to mobilize individual voters. The conventional wisdom in 2016 was that the Clinton campaign was the heir to the technologically sophisticated get-out-the-vote system designed by the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and the Trump campaign was some sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-tweet operation run entirely in an ad hoc fashion by the candidate. The reality is that Trump’s digital team, led by Brad Parscale, was quite adept at using what they learned from Facebook consultants to design ads posted on their platform that would uniquely appeal to, and mobilize, individual voters.

The Clinton team declined similar assistance from Facebook. One would expect both nominees to engage in this kind of micro-targeted campaigning this time around.

Any other thoughts?

I may regret this bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking in November, but the results of Super Tuesday certainly make one wonder just how important ad buys are at the moment. Mayor Bloomberg and Tom Steyer overwhelmed the field with TV ad buys, for example, and have precious little to show for it. Vice President Biden’s success in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday suggest that endorsements from other political figures and free media coverage still matter quite a bit, particularly for the voters that flocked to Biden in the days leading up to Super Tuesday. Campaigning is changing, but it’s not unrecognizable from what we’ve been accustomed to.

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