Center Maryland: Winning an election in 140 characters or less: The changing landscape of campaigns in the social media age

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on April 1, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

If you’ve been following the presidential campaign of Donald Trump – and at this point who isn’t? – you are probably aware that at least some of the relentless news coverage he’s garnered has been triggered from statements, comments and videos he’s posted to his Twitter and other highly followed social media platforms.

This, of course, has been all good for Trump as he feeds his loyal supporter base – which includes more than 7 million followers on Twitter alone – while also dominating the 24-hour news cycle.

Some pundits have gone so far as to say Trump, if elected, will be the first “social media president.” Truth be told, in 2008 Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to fully integrate social media into his campaign and leverage it to speak to supporters and keep and grow his base.

Still, by any expert opinion, Trump has taken the savvy use of social media in an election campaign to a new level – much in the same way Franklin Roosevelt was the first politician to smartly leverage radio to his advantage with his “Fireside Chats.” Similarly John Kennedy took advantage of the “new” medium of TV in the 1960 election.

Whether he wins the White House or not, Trump’s use of social media as a key campaign tool is being closely watched and studied far and wide – from candidates running in Maryland to national experts who make a career out of dissecting campaigns.

The big question, of course, is can social media alone help any one candidate win an election?

This is a pressing question not just on the national stage but locally and in Maryland as there are key races underway, including the crowded and hotly contested Baltimore mayoral race and the U.S. Senate race for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

The universal answer from several experts: no.

Mileah Kromer, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, says no definitive reliable study – and there have been a number of studies – has verified a direct correlation yet between active use of social media communications in an election campaign and election to office.

The key word in that observation is “yet,” as the political landscape and the electorate is changing fast.

“You can’t win an election today just through social media,” said Kromer, who also oversees the Goucher Poll, which surveys Maryland residents on political, social and other topics. Along those same lines, having large or low numbers of followers and the like on candidates’ social media platforms should not be read as a proxy for poll standings, she notes.

One example of that may be former mayor Sheila Dixon who is running for mayor in Baltimore City. A recent Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore poll found Dixon in a virtual deadlock for first place with State Senator Catherine Pugh. But Dixon is not particularly active on her Twitter campaign site – just 308 tweets. In contrast, Pugh has 1,400 tweets.

Kromer speculates the reason for that may be Dixon is targeting older African-American women, who vote in elections but likely don’t use social media. Pugh meanwhile is trying to appeal to a younger, educated base, which do use social media often.

In any case, candidates, Kromer and other experts say, still must engage in face-to-face contact with voters, whether it’s the traditional knocking on doors, and attending church gatherings, community meetings and candidate forums.

To build name recognition they also must put campaign money into traditional advertising, such as TV, radio, and (to a much lesser degree than years past) newspapers, Kromer said.

On the flip side, Kromer and other experts note that candidates for public office can no longer ignore using social media in a campaign. Doing so comes at the candidate’s peril.

If a candidate doesn’t have a social media presence as part of their campaign communications, it serves as a “red flag” to voters that the candidate may not be a serious person or contender, Kromer notes.

Campaigns are marathons – not sprints – and social media is now a critical tool to keep supporters interested and engaged with a candidate when they might otherwise forget or lose interest.

Leaders at the Maryland Republican Party and Maryland Democratic Party agree.

D. Bruce Poole, Chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said candidates for office are advised that it is essential to have a social media presence in their campaigns and make smart use of it to connect with supporters and broaden that base.

A key tactic, Poole said, is candidates must put some thinking behind Twitter, Facebook and other content they circulate on social media so that it connects with voters and helps the candidate highlight what they are all about.

In other words, “#I’mthebestcandidate” just doesn’t work.

If done well “… social media can create great energy around a campaign,” Poole said.

Candidates can use the medium to quickly get their messages out to supporters who hopefully retweet and share posts with their own social media network, thus helping the candidate expand the campaign’s base of support, Poole noted.

Maryland Republican political operatives, campaigned in support of  the election of Governor Larry Hogan in 2014 in part by leveraging the Change Maryland Facebook and Twitter sites Hogan founded, view social media platforms as integral to any GOP race in the state.

“The worst candidates who come to us for guidance on campaigns are the ones who say they do not want to bother with social media,” said Joseph Cluster, Executive Director at the Maryland Republican Party.

The reason: Without social media, a candidate runs the risk of traditional news media outlets, such as newspapers and local TV news, filtering and interpreting their messages via their own biases.

Candidates who intelligently use social media essentially can bypass traditional news outlets and become their own news providers, Cluster said.

“Back in the day, TV and newspapers controlled the messages and the news,” Cluster said. “But today, you can control your own messages and news. You create the reality for your followers.”

Hopefully they share that with others and the base expands, Cluster notes.

By doing so, a candidate who makes savvy use of social media can shape a clear personal identity for voters to relate to – and respond rapidly to criticism, negativity or inaccurate information spread by challengers or special interest groups and the many other unforeseen challenges of a campaign.

Trump is a good example in the changing landscape of election campaigns. You might say Trump has used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to block, tackle and run all over GOP opponents – and anyone else in his way.

One thing to keep in mind is that while on its face social media may seem like a magical low-cost communications tool for election campaigns, that is not true, Kromer said.

Many candidates today, whether running for local offices and certainly all on the national stage, have hired guns handling social media posts.

While Trump is said to craft his own tweets and other messages for social media, there is a 29-year-old “social media whiz” named Justin McConney behind Trump’s social media strategy, which includes posting 15-second Instagram videos that often earn “enough media to perform the function of ad buys, but for free,” according to Politco.com.

In 2013, long before Trump hit the national stage with his masterful use of social media to build loyalty and broaden support for a presidential run, the Change Maryland Facebook and Twitter sites were breaking new ground. These sites are attributed with creating a groundswell of support for an Anne Arundel County businessman and Republican who had never held elected office, one Larry Hogan, in his efforts to make an underdog bid for the governor’s seat in a Democratic controlled Maryland.

Political experts like Kromer and even leaders of the state Democratic Party credit the Change Maryland social media campaign as a key component in the governor’s winning strategy.

The sites now function as platforms for the governor, the state GOP and their supporters to lobby for or against legislation and issues and fight back against the opposition. And, says Kromer, Change Maryland has emerged as a model for state office seekers in other parts of the country for how to smartly leverage social media.

Poole at the Maryland Democratic Party says social media is having a profound and lasting effect on campaigns and elections.

This instantaneous communications platform, he said, is turning out to be transformational for campaigns – akin to the dramatic transition that occurred when the trench warfare tactics of World War I gave way to the blitzkrieg assaults of World War II.

Poole cautions that once elected, candidates need to get down to the difficult and highly complex business of governing, rather than focusing on social media to push their personality and positions. Just because an elected official is very active on social media doesn’t mean they are fully engaged or successful in the governing process, he contends.

We won’t know how deep the changes are in this pivotal transition period until the current election cycle is behind us and political experts have had time to gather and analyze social media and other data with election results.

But one thing is certain: social media, which is constantly evolving with the emerging popularity of such sites as Vine and Snap Chat, is triggering a wave of pivotal transition in how candidates and political campaigns communicate, posture and position.

Good or bad, this new tool is here to stay and no doubt grow even more sophisticated in campaigns locally and nationally as we move deeper into the Digital Age.

Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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