Political Campaigning in the Digital Age: Memes, Livestreams, Twitter and Female Candidates

Whether it is texting voters directly through NGP VAN about how to get to their polling places, or livestreaming a candidate’s day on the campaign trail, digital organizing is a relatively new — but rapidly expanding — sector of political campaigning. Previously regarded as a mere afterthought, digital media has successfully proved its power in fundraising campaigns, specifically through emails, advertisements, and landing pages. Even ‘on-the-ground’ activities, like phone banking and canvassing, can now be done without heading to a campaign field office, and volunteer recruitment is no doubt easier with the help of digital media. Current campaigns, therefore, are now integrating this field as one of their primary tools. Nonetheless, one question that has yet to be posed: do these tactics work just as well for female candidates?

In being a part of a relatively new field, all digital campaign staffers have had to, and continue to, fight for legitimacy and organizational autonomy. Daniel Kreiss, author, and UNC professor, has been researching the emerging digital field in the United States, and notes in his book, Handbook of digital politics, that “during the 2000 presidential primaries the first contemporary uses of the Internet emerged, as campaigns began to focus on volunteer recruitment and mobilization, fundraising, and strategic messaging through social networks”.  At the time, staffers discovered that supporters were visiting their web pages far more often than undecided voters were, and therefore, staffers “used the Internet to shore up support, drive fundraising, and register and mobilize their voters”.

The Democratic party has been known for its “cutting-edge” digital campaigns, but both parties have gone back and forth in who dominates the digital domain. In Kreiss’ “The Tech Industry Meets Presidential Politics: Explaining the Democratic Party’s Technological Advantage in Electoral Campaigning, 2004–2012,” he discusses what kept the Democrats’ digital programs stronger than its competitors throughout the early 2000s and 2010s. He writes that “Democratic campaigns on the whole, and especially Obama’s two presidential runs, had significantly higher rates of staffing in these areas.” This is because Democrats were ready to embrace new technologies than Republicans were, and therefore were more likely to contract technology professionals from outside of the political field for support. However, Princeton researcher R.K. Nielsen writes that the 2004 campaign that most successfully integrated digital media was actually that of George W. Bush, who “created a ‘virtual precinct captain’ program through which online volunteers stewarded electoral districts in geographic areas that were a priority for the campaign”. He continues to write that “Bush’s re-election effort also revealed that the Republican Party and its consultancies had far more robust online platforms, voter databases, and volunteer and voter mobilization efforts than the Democratic Party”. It turns out that Obama’s 2008 campaign greatly took inspiration from Bush’s 2004 run — even “Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe (2009) acknowledged as much, citing the Bush team’s re-election effort as a model for the historic 2008 run”.

Since then, the Democratic party has consistently dominated the digital field. Following their 2004 loss, Democratic strategists formed multiple digital firms, with Blue State Digital being one of the first. Its involvement in the 2008 campaign included the formation of the Voter Activation Network, a “powerful voter database,” as well as an increased use of Facebook and Youtube to document on-the-ground campaigning. Many Obama strategists then expanded this work in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, with a campaign that featured texting programs, plugins, blogs, an app, surrogate digital support, and countless other online efforts. The Republican party has recently begun to catch up to Democratic digital efforts, specifically with their move to designate Brad Parscale, a “digital guru” according to BBC, as chief of staff of the Trump 2020 campaign. To date, a digital staffer has not been promoted to chief of staff on any presidential run, even Democratic.

Much of the recent political focus has been placed on the 2018 midterm elections as being a litmus test to the resistance of the Trump administration, with many campaigns doubling down on digital media as one of the main ways to contact voters and receive donations. Democratic super PAC Priorities USA has committed to spending “75 million” on the midterm elections, with most of that budget being “pumped into digital advertising,” according to chairman Guy Cecil. Investments are being taken all over the country, including in Texas — a historically “red” state — where candidate Beto O’Rourke is giving incumbent Ted Cruz a run for his money. Rather than running a “traditional” campaign, “O’Rourke would make heavy use of social media to essentially broadcast otherwise mundane daily functions” with a goal to “break down the barriers” between candidates and their electorate, as reported by The Daily Beast.

This “risk” of designating a large portion of the campaign to digital organizing and messaging paid off: as of April, the campaign had raised over 13 million dollars according to Vox, all without support from corporations or PACs. One strategist interviewed in the article notes that this success “is the hallmark of a Bernie-style fundraising message”. In using social media, he makes himself available to voters “all the time, in emails, videos, and tweets that the campaign posts every day. He broadcasts from settings that politicians normally shun or find so incredibly mundane that they don’t think there is any particular advantage in advertising”. And people are donating – whether it is “via the emails [or] when they see a comment on one of the Facebook Live streams,” each of these modes is an online donation.

Most certainly, O’Rourke’s cash advantage in comparison to his competitor is thanks to his strong digital grounding. Also specific to O’Rourke’s campaign, and another factor of his great success is his keen involvement in the digital campaigning process. O’Rourke’s Facebook page is filled with livestreams of himself talking to the camera and recording just about any topic, from “My sister driving us to Killeen” to “Picking up our pick up.” These Facebook live videos are done by the candidate himself, and not by digital staffers, as he talks about practically anything he’s seen on the road in Texas and tells stories about people he has met. They do not appear to be scripted or planned, demonstrating to voters how he is a real, interactive candidate. In addition to establishing his digital presence, O’Rourke’s Facebook is also used to publish town hall events all across Texas, making him available to voters both online and in-person. This combination of on-the-ground and online campaigns that O’Rourke utilizes is vital to any candidate’s success in the 21st century — not one or the other alone can make a successful modern campaign.

One of digital media’s great advantages is that it is one of the cheapest, yet most valuable tools that can help to elect candidates. Just this past year, a record number of women (and even more specifically, women of color) ran for office, each of whom had at least a Twitter account or Facebook page that allowed them to connect with voters without paying a dime. Candidates like Danica Roem, who is now the first seated openly transgender U.S. lawmaker, were able to make a big name for themselves through social media. The Washington Post calls Roem’s campaign “relentless, knocking on doors more than 75,000 times in a district with 52,471 registered voters,” and highlights Roem’s “myriad [of] public appearances and interviews and … a steady social media presence.” Many of her donations came from pro-LGBTQ rights organizations from across the nation. At the end of the day, there is no doubt that Roem’s ‘going viral’ on the internet for being an openly transgender candidate ultimately established her name-recognition and contributed greatly to the extra flow of donations. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that this was paired with on-the-ground canvassing as well.

In Virginia, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala became the state’s first two Latina delegates, both beating out the Republican incumbents. Social media pages for these in-state candidates acted as a free way to push out policy platforms and allow voters to get to know each candidate throughout their campaigns. Guzman and Ayala prove how digital media can function as a stepping stone to get interesting local candidates into national news and subsequently gather donations from both inside and outside of their district.

The recent wave of first-time candidates in the Democratic party, primarily in response to Trump’s victory and policies, has brought with it a push for the Democratic Party and other PACs to increase their investments in candidate training. Since 2016, many organizations have responded to this resource gap, one of the most prominent being Run for Something. Founded by two former Clinton Campaign staffers (Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto) who cited “the progressive movement’s systematic failure to create a diverse pipeline ” as their motivation, Run for Something helps break down the barriers to running for office by assisting in campaign strategy. Their website outlines their primary means of campaign strategy, with the top two being “earned media” and “online advertising.” Run for Something is taking advantage of the fact that one of the best ways for strategists to connect with local candidates for state legislature is through digital platforms.

The momentum for candidate training continues to grow in 2018, with both the Democratic National Committee and Emily’s List releasing online “candidate training” programs. Emily’s List is currently offering $9-a-month webinar series that connect candidates to resources both online and within their community. The DNC is offering a clean marketplace of digital tools that connect campaigns with voters through everything from SMS messaging to email fundraising. What can often be a confusing market for first-time candidates is made easily accessible by the DNC’s candidate training program. This pilot has launched primarily in “swing” states and will later be expanded across the country. By connecting local candidates to modern campaign tools, the Democratic Party and related organizations are chipping away the digital gap faced by candidates running for local office.

But amongst all of this digital expansion, there lacks a discussion regarding gender as it influences the success of digital media in one’s campaign. Although digital platforms helped female candidates such as Danica Roem and Hala Ayala, prominent digital strategists have raised an important question in response to the success of digital campaigns run by female candidates in comparison to, let’s say, Beto O’Rourke’s 24-hour livestream. Would the “internet” respond in the same way if a female candidate were to do this? This critique comes from the knowledge that prominent female candidates (and women in general) are often subject to internet harassment specifically because of their gender. Research by Amnesty International in 2017 confirmed that 33% of U.S. women have experienced some sort of online harassment. Also in 2017, Pew Research Center stated that “women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result of their gender.”

It is no secret that in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s extremely organized digital campaign was not as well received as those of male politicians with similar ideologies and similar staffers. Even Clinton herself wrote to journalist Lauren Duca that “the internet is not a friendly place for women.” A simple google search for ‘Hillary Clinton memes,’ ‘Barack Obama memes,’ and ‘Joe Biden memes’ will show just how Clinton’s gender is targeted specifically. Memes targeted to Clinton such as “Life’s a bitch, don’t elect one” and “It’s my turn to be president, Bill promised me” place her in an inferior position (to other male candidates as well as to her husband Bill Clinton) simply because she is a woman (Index A, B). Meanwhile, Obama and Biden — men of similar political standpoints — tend to be ‘meme-ified’ with lighter humor. For example, the internet loves Barack and Joe’s ‘bromance,’ or Obama’s awkward use of Snapchat, but is quick to critique Hillary when she similarly panders to millennials.

Laura Moser, the current candidate for Congress in Texas’ seventh district, tackled this question head-on with an empowering and funny response to the often sexist critiques to her social media presence. In one of her most popular tweets, she writes: “Wondering if that pantsuit makes you look fat? Run for office -- and everyone will let you know!” Moser reads off offensive tweets she has received (Index, C). The negative comments that Moser receives are clearly gender-based, with many commenting on things such as bras, makeup, and haircuts. There is no doubt that male candidates will not receive such appearance-based critiques when they spend hours live streaming and posting videos. Of course, not every female candidate can simply utilize digital media to address sexism on the campaign trail as Moser did. However, it goes to show that for pro-choice, pro-women candidates, attacking sexism head-on utilizing the power of social media has its advantage.

The growth of digital campaigning does not mean that organizers and volunteers should ever stop knocking on doors and talking to their neighbors — O’Rourke’s “every-county-in-Texas” motto shows that. But, we should begin embracing digital organizing as an equally legitimate industry, not just as hiring a few people to run social media accounts. This sector is becoming one of the biggest money-makers of any campaign, which allows candidates to gain the support of many small donors easier and faster than ever before. Modern campaigns demonstrate, however, that successful digital programs often require a well-integrated candidate. Additionally, there is no doubt that female candidates do not receive equal benefit from digital organizing in comparison to their male counterparts, as they often face online harassment throughout their campaigns and beyond. There is no quick solution to addressing this problem, but it seems that female candidates — especially democratic, pro-choice ones — can benefit from utilizing social media to face the misogynistic critiques that they receive. Digital programs have proven their fundraising power and have successfully propelled a shift towards small-donor funded campaigns. Therefore, they should be invested in early on, not treated as an afterthought.

Note From the Editor: Maria Puertas worked on the 2016 Hilary Clinton campaign as a digital operations intern. 



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Works Cited

Daniel Kreiss & Shannon C. Mcgregor (2017): Technology Firms Shape Political Communication: The Work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google With Campaigns During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Cycle, Political Communication, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2017.136481

Daniel Kreiss & Christopher Jasinski (2016): The Tech Industry Meets Presidential Politics: Explaining the Democratic Party’s Technological Advantage in Electoral Campaigning, 2004–2012, Political Communication, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2015.11219