Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How has social media changed the US presidential election?

By Mary Keane-Dawson, Group CEO of TAKUMI

Social media has changed the game in US politics since its inception, allowing incumbents, newcomers, and commentators alike to speak directly to voters on anything from domestic policies, to international trade, to shaming opponents. 

Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign

Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to use the medium in the 2008 presidential election. Back then, Facebook was the dominant social media platform, and Obama used it to build his brand, growing from a relative political unknown to an elected official in just over a year.

Obama was an early adopter of some of the tactics that have since become commonplace in politics. While pundits were watching the Obama-Clinton debates, Obama was undercutting traditional media channels on Facebook. In early 2007, over a year before he won his party’s nomination, Obama had attracted a massive 250,000 followers on Facebook, compared to the paltry 3,200 garnered by Clinton. 

This approach proved a success, with exit polls from the 2008 presidential election revealing that Obama had won nearly 70% of the vote among young Americans under 25 – the highest percentage since US exit polling began in 1976. 

Obama’s success has been replicated hundreds of times since, locally, nationally, and internationally, and now, in 2020, we have an incumbent President who has built his base through his nearly hourly use of Twitter.

Why Michael Bloomberg poured money into influencer marketing

The height of social media’s incorporation into politics arguably came during Michael Bloomberg’s ill-fated bid for the Democrat nomination this year. In his short-lived campaign for President, entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Bloomberg spent more than $1 billion of his own money before dropping out of the race, with more than 70% of this going toward marketing. 

Or, more specifically, influencer marketing. Throughout his bid for the nomination, Bloomberg offered influencers $150 a post to upload content promoting him as an electable candidate, and even hired a company that solely creates memes to develop a “self-aware ironic” persona for him online. 

Of course, we all know how Bloomberg’s bid for President turned out. The billionaire ended his campaign in March 2020, after having won only 61 delegates and set the record for the most expensive US presidential primary campaign. However, that’s not to say that the marketing tactics employed by Bloomberg were wrong. 

The future of social media in politics 

Democrat presidential nominee Biden has also integrated influencers into his campaign strategy, using content creators to supplement his positioning as a safe pair of hands and an accessible candidate. But, unlike Bloomberg, Biden’s approach isn’t focused on memes or viral content. 

Instead, Biden holds interviews with well-known influencers and celebrities – such as talk show host, Keke Palmer, and YouTuber, Bethany Mota – where he sits at home and answers open-ended questions, allowing Biden to talk off the cuff about any given topic. 

This approach exposes Biden to followers and voters who may not otherwise have seen the content put out by the campaign, whether on Twitter or on Instagram – where Biden has far fewer followers than President Trump. Palmer has 9.6 million followers compared to Biden’s 2.4 million, and shares over half of her follower base with users like Cardi B, Beyonce and Kevin Hart, according to Instagram analytics. And Mota shares half of her 4.6 million followers with pop star Ariana Grande. The intersection of influencer, political, and celebrity content means that the combined reach of all of these five Instagram accounts is over 20 million individual followers and potential voters.

While this approach doesn’t have the virality of Bloomberg’s memes, it does offer the type of political content that social media users’ now crave. Our latest whitepaper – Into the Mainstream: Influencer Marketing in Society – surveyed over 3,500 marketers, consumers, and influencers across the US, UK and Germany, and found that nearly half of all social media users (41%) want influencers to voice an opinion on political, social, and ethical issues. 

Similarly, a quarter of all consumers (25%) said they regularly sourced news updates and opinions from influencers over journalists and established news outlets – rising to more than a third of 16-24-year olds (38%), 25-34-year olds (38%), and 35-44-year olds (34%).

The above statistics show that users are searching for political content on social media, and view influencers as the ideal candidates to communicate this content. Therefore, a political strategy on social media based on interviews, rather than memes, appears to be the most effective approach for the future. 

Social media has undoubtedly transformed US politics since Obama used Facebook to propel him to the White House in 2008. Now, in 2020, this year’s election has seen both presidential candidates and candidates for the Democrat nomination recognise the importance of social media and pour millions into influencer content in the hope to attract voters who are not always easy to reach. With our research showing that users want more political content from influencers, this is a trend we expect to grow going forward.

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