Syracuse University Magazine

Campaign Crafting

Campaign Crafting

The rise of social media has forever altered how presidential candidates maneuver in their runs for the White House

By Jennifer Stromer-Galley

Presidential campaigns now thoroughly and strategically use social media to mobilize supporters, talk to reporters, and attack their opponents. Whether Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or even Snapchat, the candidates are as engaged in social media as any savvy corporation at trying to sway hearts and minds and build loyalty.

Only two decades ago presidential campaigns were just beginning to dip their toes in the water with online media. Back then, President Bill Clinton was running for re-election against Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Both had websites, but not email lists, online discussions, or ways for supporters to give money online.

So, how has campaigning changed as a result of new digital media? Frankly, it has changed in important ways. The ways campaigns fundraise, interact with the news media, gauge public opinion, construct their image, and interact with the public have all been disrupted, just as digital technologies and mobile devices have transformed other sectors of our society.

One of the most significant disruptions to campaigning is in the ways campaigns raise money. It is the lifeblood of a campaign; without it, they die. Before the Internet, campaigns gathered money by holding fundraising events and by mail and phone solicitations to the party faithful and loyal supporters. That began to change with an important regulation shift. In 2000, the Federal Election Commission allowed campaigns to collect money by credit card. As email and the web grew as standard ways people got information and followed politics, campaigns took advantage of the relative speed of the Internet to fundraise. Arizona Senator John McCain, during his first run at the White House in 2000, was the first presidential candidate to figure out how to effectively leverage the Internet to use major events, like primary voting days, to capitalize on the excitement and attention of the public to fundraise online. In 2004, Vermont Governor Howard Dean continued to experiment with online fundraising and in the process demonstrated that campaigns could use blogs, email, and their websites in conjunction to fundraise—especially to generate small contributions. Indeed, Dean’s campaign is the first significant proof that campaigns could be effectively supported by a large group of people giving relatively small contributions. In 2012, the Obama campaign further improved on this by enabling people to save their credit card information with the campaign for easy repeated giving.  

In 2016, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, running for the Democratic Party nomination, further found major success with small donor giving online. In April 2016, Sanders raised $27 million, with the average contribution only $27. This broke Democratic Party fundraising records. He did this by energizing and then mobilizing supporters to give to his campaign online using a combination of local organizing, targeted email messaging, and capitalizing on major events to draw in contributions.

Before social media, a campaign funded purely on small donors would never have gotten off the ground. Today, campaigns can effectively raise small amounts of money if they have the right message and the strategies to connect with a large number of supporters on social media. They can then channel them to the campaign website to give $25. Challengers, in particular, have the advantage of more passionate supporters who may not be able to afford a $2,000 check, but can afford to give $25 each month as they see the campaign unfold and grow in success. Sanders’s progressive message resonated with disaffected Democratic primary voters who saw former Secretary of State, New York Senator, and First Lady Hillary Clinton as a hawkish centrist. Sanders was able to channel their passion into small contributions that enabled him to go all the way into June as a challenger to Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

News Coverage
The news industry has been powerfully altered in the Internet age. The news media and the audiences that consume news in the digital age have fragmented, and the volume and diversity of outlets—from blogs to online-only outlets such as Slate or aggregators like The Huffington Post—have created a hybrid media environment where more mainstream sources are fueled by and fuel these alternative news streams.

Candidates and their campaign staff historically have been mistrustful of the news media, but before the Internet age they had few choices for how to reach a mass audience except by purchasing expensive television advertisements. Today, campaigns can short circuit the singular power of the news media by going directly to the public through Twitter and Facebook. For campaigns, Twitter is an especially important tool for driving stories or presenting a particular spin on an issue. Although only about 25 percent of the Internet-using American public regularly tweets, political elites and journalists are heavy consumers of Twitter. Because of this, candidates can use Twitter as a kind of amplifier of their message.

No candidate has more effectively used Twitter to amplify his message than celebrity and business mogul Donald Trump in 2016. Trump personally dictates to staff or, in the evening personally tweets, the messages the public sees on his Twitter account @realdonaldtrump. The news media and the public both crave direct access to candidates, but candidates generally hold both at arm’s length. A direct Twitter stream from the candidate to the public means the news media is continuously carefully monitoring Trump’s feed to see what he might say. And, of course, Trump’s style is unfiltered and controversial. What Trump says has not been carefully vetted by his staff or poll tested to ensure acceptability across a wide variety of audiences. Thus, his uncouth political style further draws great attention to his words online. Analyses have already shown that Trump received substantially more news coverage than his Republican opponents or his Democrat rivals during the primaries. In the never-ending news cycle and unfiltered reporting that is the hallmark of the news industry in the age of the Internet, Donald Trump helps fill the news holes.

Public opinion polling helps the public, the news media, and the candidates to get a picture of the mood of the public, the attitudes they have toward the candidates, and their hopes and fears for the future of the country. The news media uses poll results to drive news coverage of the campaigns, contributing to the large volume of strategy coverage that predominates over issue and policy-­focused coverage.

The public and the news media rely on accurate polling to predict election results. Everyone wants to know who is ahead and who is behind in the polls. This knowledge drives campaign strategy, and campaigns will change their tactics depending on their poll standing. Polling the electorate typically is done by surveys, although focus groups and other more qualitative approaches are often used by the media and by campaigns. The standard public opinion telephone survey, in which a random set of people are asked their opinions, is used especially to forecast election outcomes. In recent years, the accuracy of polling has dropped as more people adopt cellphones and get rid of their land lines. As a result, the polls increasingly are not reflecting Election Day victories. Most of the polls leading up to the Iowa caucus predicted a Donald Trump victory, for example, but they were wrong. Texas Senator Ted Cruz handily beat out his rivals when the caucuses were actually held.

Campaigns, for their part, rely heavily on public opinion data. They need to know what issues the public is particularly concerned about so they can develop a message that resonates. In addition to conducting their own internal polls and focus groups, they now rely on social media to help them gauge the mood of the public. Campaign staff use Twitter, especially, to float messages that they are thinking to turn into a more formal messaging campaign. They monitor the reactions to the messages, like how positively they are responded to and how much they spread through Twitter, and then use that to determine what direction to take.

Political campaigns are largely about constructing an image of the candidate that will generate the most votes on Election Day. Candidates craft a persona—an aspect of themselves that they hope will resonate with specific demographic and interest groups. Candidates also work to craft the personas of their opponents in ways meant to do damage and lead fewer people to cast ballots for them on Election Day.

Social media platforms let people construct a carefully designed presentation of themselves. While typically candidates create a flattering image of themselves through their social media accounts, their followers and the news media crave authenticity. They want a glimpse into who the candidate really is, unscripted and raw.

All of the presidential candidates strive to appear authentic, but only one candidate genuinely is so: Donald Trump. His in-your-face, no-holds-barred style exudes authenticity, allowing his message to reverberate widely through social media and mainstream media. Although Clinton and other candidates produce playful messages and use Snapchat heavily to attack Trump, the Democratic presidential nominee cannot compete with Trump on authenticity because she carries 30 years of baggage as a public figure mistrustful of the news media and unwilling to let them and the public into her private sphere.

Trump proportionally attacks his opponents more on image than on policy positions. For example, in an early move to bring down the perceived Republican front-runner, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Trump attacked him as “boring” and “low energy” at campaign rallies and in television interviews. The attack was amplified by a 15-second Instagram video that showed an attendee at a Bush event sleeping. This and his other Instagram videos reinforced Trump’s authentic image as the candidate willing to say what everyone else was thinking, while simultaneously constructing his opponents’ images in negative ways that were hard for them to counter.

Before digital media, interactivity meant the grassroots field campaign, with campaigns organizing volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls, and engage in visibility events in support of the candidate in order to do research about potential voters, raise funds, and get people to the polls on Election Day.

In the age of digital media, this work has moved online. In the process, greater opportunities exist for the public to interact with the candidate and the campaign. The interaction, however, tends to be carefully limited by campaigns in ways that are most advantageous to them because they are typically risk-averse, and interacting directly with the public is risky. But social media is inherently interactive: enabling the two-way flow of conversation and information between people, from email to Facebook. These channels for interaction reduce the long-established hierarchy between campaigns and the public, potentially giving the public greater voice and visibility in campaigns.  

Campaigns recognize that the digital media environment opens up the possibility for greater two-way interaction with their supporters and the general public. They work to strategically massage that interactivity when possible to maximize the benefits while trying to minimize the risks.

Trump, for example, used his social media accounts to cleverly interact with the public. He used Twitter especially to criticize the state of the country, the policies of the current administration, and his opponents. Such messages gave his already huge social media following something to share, like, and retweet, allowing him to spread his messages virally. When he announced his candidacy, his celebrity status positioned him with incredible advantage over most of his rivals in terms of his social media presence. Unlike other candidates, Trump was much more likely to retweet messages directed to him, giving his supporters a sense that he was listening to them and sharing their ideas with his massive following.

What 2016 so far proves is that digital media—websites and social media—are being used to maximum benefit, especially for candidates who have an outsider message and an effective digital media strategy to amplify that to their supporters, who in turn share it with their friends and family. I never declare that a given election season is the “Year of the Internet,” but this one demonstrates the ways that social media has forever changed the strategies of political campaigning. «

School of Information Studies professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley is the author of Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age (Oxford University Press, 2014) and has launched the Illuminating 2016 project, which analyzes the social media messages this campaign season. Ideas from this essay are elaborated on in a chapter in the forthcoming book Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication (Peter Lang, 2016), edited by Paul Messaris and Lee Humphreys.


Above is a snapshot of total message activity from Facebook and Twitter for presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during a seven-day period this summer. The information is provided by Illuminating 2016, a computational journalism project launched by iSchool professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley and supported by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Center for Computational and Data Sciences at SU.


Whether raising money, honing their images, attacking opponents, or posing for selfies with supporters, presidential candidates must be digital media savvy.




In the 2012 campaign, President Barack Obama used nine separate digital platforms, including two Twitter accounts. In comparison, his opponent, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, used five. Obama also invested heavily in his digital campaign, outspending Romney by about a 10-to-1 margin. According to the Pew Research Center, during a two-week period in June 2012, Obama posted 29 tweets per day versus one per day by Romney. Obama continues to take to Twitter to share his messages.


Republican nominee Donald Trump has made following his tweets required reading for anyone interested in the presidential campaign.


Hillary Clinton joined Snapchat in August 2015. In April, she skewered Donald Trump in what was believed to be the first presidential campaign attack ad on the popular app. 

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