The First Election Where Social Media Really Does Matter

“This will be the first truly social presidential election.” This, combined with “the youth vote will decide everything” is the most-evergreen of political #evergreentweets. The thing is, the first statement may actually be true.

The social landscape has matured a lot in the last three-plus years. Barack Obama’s digital strategy in 2012 sort of broke the mold (or created it), but that was largely seen as a “tackle the youth vote” move. 

It worked. He won the 18-29 demographic handily, 60-37%. The thing is, in 2008 it was even more stark, with Obama taking home 66% of the millennial vote to John McCain’s paltry 32%. Contrast that with the “older” vote in the same elections and things become pretty clear. In 2008, McCain won the 65+ age group 53-45%, and in 2012 Mitt Romney did even better with 65+ voters, beating Obama 56-44%. 

The problem with all of that is pretty simple: Relatively speaking, people under 30 don’t get out the vote. In 2012, just 38% of eligible 18-24 year old voters turned up to the polls. Compare that to eligible voters over the age of 65, nearly 70% of whom punched a ballot.

In 2012, Obama outspent Romney nearly 10 to 1 on digital ($47 million vs. $5 million) and it paid dividends. But, with turnout so low among younger voters, it’s tough to say that the spend really made a huge difference. In contrast, the two campaigns combined to spend nearly a billion dollars on TV spots — 60% of which was spent in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia alone. They did that because older people vote and watch TV. It’s a value play for sure, but social is changing. 

Running for office — especially the presidency — is tactically-speaking no different than any other large-scale marketing campaign. Politicians target different messages to different markets on an ever-expanding set of platforms. Facebook remains the largest — according to the Pew Research Center, a full 71% of online adults use it. That number is somewhere between 23 and 28% for LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter. But social media’s effect on elections isn’t necessarily a number-of-users game. 

Sure, Donald Trump’s 4.2 million Twitter followers is impressive, but, in a lot of ways, it’s only a few activists and journalists in that list who really matter. The news cycle is set to the tune of the social update. Maybe a candidate posts something newsworthy, maybe someone posts something of a candidate doing something newsworthy, but the speed of those stories exiting social and entering the news cycle is only getting faster. 

Social media will certainly be the star of the 2016 campaign, but not in the way people think. Campaigns are about winning the race now, and it’s not all about the youth vote on social. Sure, Snapchat will be a great platform for Hillary Clinton, and Jeb Bush has a perfectly fine Instagram profile, but until young people really start turning out to vote, no one should be surprised that they are largely an afterthought on the trail and on social. 

This isn’t the first truly social election because more people than ever are using social media. Instead, think of this as the first truly social election because everything you see and hear about it online, on TV, or on your favorite podcast likely stemmed from a social media update.

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