The Evolution of Campaigns

As a canvasser, I have personally seen a congressional campaign transition from the use of paper walk books to mobile campaigning applications within a single two-year congressional election cycle. Modern technology has contributed to the evolution of campaign outreach, political awareness, and media involvement, ultimately evolving the methodology and spirit of American political campaigns. We have seen the boom in radio, television, and the internet used for political gains, but more importantly, change American political thought.

The infamous “Fireside Chats” from Franklin Delano Roosevelt marked a unique moment in American politics. Roosevelt was able to utilize a relevant resource of the time, the radio, to effectively communicate with the American public; he gave 30 fireside chats from 1933 to 1944. It was crucial for him to speak directly to the people without the intermediary of the press, during discussions of the Great Depression and World War II. Through his talks, he spoke very nonchalantly, unlike any president before. His addresses comforted the American people, assured them in his decisions, and informed them about the war effort. This casual charisma may have contributed to his four White House victories.

The first televised presidential debate in 1960 exhibited a self-assured John F. Kennedy and an inept Richard Nixon. The American public had never seen the body language of candidates before, and it changed everything. John F. Kennedy was young, attractive, and calm on camera, whereas, Nixon was poorly shaven, nervous, and old. Kennedy ultimately won the election due to the charm and demeanor highlighted through this debate. It gave politics a more superficial lens; there is no doubt that television has made appearance, style, and presence much more important to politicians and voters. It also gave them a recognizable face and personality, even attracting them fame.

The first “attack ad” was  the “Daisy” ad for Lyndon B. Johnson, airing in 1964. It depicted a little girl sitting in a meadow with a daisy, while simultaneously an operator is counting down. Then, once it strikes zero an atomic bomb is shown blowing up. The advertisement only aired once due to the criticism and outright disgust. The ad never mentioned Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, nevertheless its message that  Johnson would prevent nuclear war over his “reckless” opponent was clear. Negative ads are extremely commonplace in recent election cycles. In 2016, in the weeks before the election  “92% of the ads” were negative; also, nearly 70% of ads were critical of Trump. The majority of the ads produced by Clinton’s and Trump’s respective campaigns were critical of each other. Political ad spending is clearly focused on the battleground states; at best, they are trying to decrease the margin of undecided voters. Many studies, have shown that political ads only increase candidate’s polls by 0.5 to 3 percentage points, but that can decide an election. Many campaigns and super pacs feel that their return on investment is better spent on undermining their opponent.

With a display of social media literacy, candidates are finally catching up to modern trends. When it comes to alternative methods of voter outreach, the Trump Train had many examples. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter appears to have been a successful campaign strategy to the chagrin of political pundits. Donald Trump, in particular, was popular on the discussion website Reddit. Post-election, the sub-reddit devoted to Trump called “The_Donald” had amassed a following of 300,000 people. The secret language and inside jokes used by committed users made it seem like a club, but it also seemed that Trump supporters were willing to answer questions and relate to others. This was buzz that the Donald Trump campaign was not purchasing, and, in terms of negative consequences, not controlling. Trump also had an edge when it came to Facebook, or more specially, Facebook Live. In October 2016, the campaign announced that they would have nightly shows every day at 6:30 where Trump campaign staff and conservative commentators would talk about current election news. Then the stream would transition to Donald Trump’s live rallies. This show was reminiscent of a more modern version of the Fireside Chats, heavily produced, of course.

The Donald Trump campaign triumphed with their consistent and centralized message, “Make America Great Again.” On the other hand, marketing was the main challenge for the Clinton campaign. Hillary has had a long run in politics, and she needed to rebrand herself as a fresh candidate with new ideas. It was hard for her to escape her political record and break out of the “establishment” stereotype that Trump was fighting against. The Clinton campaign successfully gained young voters, but did not work hard enough to rebuild trust with undecideds and democrats. The critical mistake of the Clinton campaign was assuming that Michigan as well as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were sure wins. She failed to unite these voters in her favor, and was not able to convince America to vote for her party a third time, which is a “historically difficult task for any governing party.” For many, she was not the face they wished to see nominated, with the recent regret of their lost candidate, Bernie Sanders, still troubling them. Ultimately, she was not able to generate the necessary enthusiasm for her cause to win the election.

The 2016 election utilized mobile applications for engagement, outreach, and canvassing. The Hillary Clinton campaign’s mobile campaigning application, Hillary 2016, was revolutionary and innovative. It incorporated game-inspired challenges for volunteers and supporters, encouraging personal interaction among voters. It is the political equivalent of “Pokemon Go” and definitely encouraged political activism from young voters.  About a month later, the Trump campaign introduced the America First mobile app, with little announcement. Extremely similar to Hilary’s app, Trump’s app also gave users rewards for certain campaign-promoting activities, reinforcing the game-like model that we will likely continue to see in the future electoral campaigns.

The variety of news sources has increased as well, including the inception of Facebook News Feed and Snapchat News Stories. Although that increase, that does not necessarily correlate to a more informed or accurately informed voting population. People seem to stick with sources that affirm their own political ideology. This is best exemplified through a Pew Research survey that shows 40% of Trump supporters got their election news from Fox News, which reflects the ideology of the Republican party. The main source for Clinton supporters was CNN at 18%; it also showed that group to have a more diverse spread of new sources. The irony is that although Clinton supporters were informed from wider array of news sources, Donald Trump got more news attention during the election. From July 1, 2015 to August 31, 2016, Donald Trump was solely mentioned in headlines over twice number that Hilary Clinton was mentioned; although, studies showed that the coverage of Clinton was overall more positive. This all considered, we do not accurately know if voters sought out stories to challenge their own political beliefs and opinions, or simply just consumed the most accessible media. Facebook, for example, has an algorithm designed to show you what they already know you like, including political candidates. Although in this modern age, we have access to a wider range of sources and ideas, we do not seem to be fully utilizing all those advances.

The first 2016 Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was the most watched presidential debate to date with an audience of 84 million listeners, not counting the online audience. This is a result of the heightened political climate and the spectacle around these two candidates. As discussed, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were anomalies in US politics. Some of their strategies may soon become a standard and their failures, a difficult lesson. Social media has created trends that analysts and pollsters do not understand how to quantify. Ultimately, social media highlights entertainment and negativity over important political discourse. The news, similar to social media, makes money off the numbers, and entertainment brings an audience. The political biases and extremes fit straight into their business model, creating a dramatic story for the consumer. Based on the attention brought to social media hashtags, news headlines, political paraphernalia, and internet memes, it is pretty apparent that the 2016 election was one to capitalize off of. More importantly, this election brought to light that policy was not talked about with any frequency. The American public was more coerced by funny tweets or debate gifs  than decisive displays of leadership or a well researched policy platform. Frankly, this should be concerning for a few reasons. Firstly, it undermines the highly professional reputation that a President should have and turns them into a figure of entertainment or celebrity. It also threatens our ability of self-governance; if we are failing to chose the most qualified candidates, it is a reflection on us and our culture (which the government can’t regulate). Lastly, it should be noted that with the information at our disposal, we can make much better decisions as to our candidates. We can get to know our candidates through their interviews, debates, and social media posts as well as become educated on their platform. My hope is that these advances will garner a larger voting population, a more informed public, and a more unified America.