“I think it’s a lot about being relatable,” English said. “So, some of that is through social media because obviously young voters pay a lot of attention to social media and it is an effective marketing tool.”
English is right, according to most statistics. The millennial population has officially overtaken baby boomers as the largest generation, topping out at roughly 77 million people according to global information company Nielsen. This makes earning the millennial vote extremely important to a candidate’s success in the 2016 election, CNN reported. Since the Pew Research Center found nearly two-thirds of 18-29-year-olds believe social media is the most helpful way to learn new things about politics, candidates have geared up their online campaigns to target this crucial demographic.
It has been argued that the first presidetial candidate to truly understand and leverage the opportunities social media sites provide was President Obama, who was often spotted thumbing tweets or Facebook posts on his Blackberry from the campaign trail in 2008. According to US News, President Obama also employed one of Facebook’s co-founders as a key strategist in his 2008 campaign and went on to win the votes of 70 percent of Americans under the age of 25.
The use of social media by presidential candidates in this election, however, might be called unprecedented by some standards. In just 12 months, the US has collectively spent time equivalent to 1,284 years reading about Donald Trump on social media, GovTech reported. Trump’s astonishing 8.4 million Twitter followers defeat Secretary Clinton’s 6.3 million and Senator Sanders’ mere 2 million, so it’s no surprise to many millennials that Twitter feeds these days are chock-full of political banter. Rhett Gutierrez, a political science and public policy double major at DU and campaign policy advisor for the Clinton campaign, believes that online presence plays a key role in educating voters and encouraging voter participation.
“I think the more you can saturate the social media platform with campaigns, the more people are aware of what’s going on, and the more aware they are of who the people are that are running,” Gutierrez said. “You’re increasing awareness, and that’s a big step to getting people to actually vote.”
Not only could social media impact young voters’ decision to vote at all, but it could also help them decide for whom to vote. This idea is supported in a number of surveys conducted for the millennial generation. Refuel agency, a marketing firm that focuses on this generation, found that of all methods that could influence millennials to vote, social media is the most likely to sway their opinion.
University of Denver professor of public policy Dr. Robert Fusfeld, however, believes this social media craze could be temporary.
“If people hear the words Twitter, Facebook, or social media, they’re more likely to pay attention,” Fusfeld said. “I suspect this is a fad.”
Whether temporary or not, the tactic to use social media as a large component of each candidate’s campaign appears to be working to gain support, according to a GovTech article. Republican political strategist Patrick Ruffini calls social media a “direct pipeline into mainstream media coverage and to voters,” wherein a candidate can post on social media to make news, and then those news stories are circulated throughout social media to continue to build impetus and foster political chatter. Examples of this phenomenon range from Trump’s 140-character rant calling President Obama the “worst president in U.S. history”to Senator Sanders’ lighthearted tweet featuring an illustration of the bird that landed on his podium at a rally (affectionately known as #BirdieSanders).
This media attention has led to a cost-saving effect that campaigns can benefit from: essentially free advertising. It is estimated that if Trump sought similar attention to what he has received from his use of social media by purchasing ads, it would cost around $380 million, according to GovTech. By instead gaining this attention from tweets, likes and shares online, his campaign saves money while still keeping a competitive edge against his last two remaining opponents, Senator Sanders and former Secretary Clinton.
However helpful social media may be to campaign managers looking to save a few million dollars, some young voters still crave more traditional forms of campaigning. English is one of those millennials.
“I think candidates visiting social areas where a lot of young people are, so urban cities or college campuses, is a huge way to encourage voters to know who you are,” English said. “It’s important for candidates to prove that they’re humans and not just someone who talks on TV or online.”
Additionally, some young voters also worry the candidates’ use of social media distracts from the issues by instead attacking personalities.
“I think this election is kind of unique in that the issue is not what’s being debated, it’s personalities and characteristics like “Trump’s a sexist’ or ‘Hillary’s a liar’ or ‘Bernie’s a socialist,'” Gutierrez said. “I think this is all so much more about the personalities of the candidates running and I think social media sensationalizes that and puts it in a nice, neat, simple box for the masses to consume and it’s in a way that I don’t know is constructive for running a democracy.”
It’s possible that this issue of discussing the candidates rather than the issues is simply caused by campaigns and candidates struggling through how best to utilize this new technology of social media in a constructive way to earn votes.
“Is it possible that the technology revolution makes it possible to reach, inspire, motivate, get people off their butts? Maybe,” Fusfeld said. “Has anybody figured out a way to use social media to get information to young people in such a way? I don’t think so.”
While the intensive use of social media by presidential candidates has its benefits and drawbacks, at the end of the day, candidates rely on it to reach that crucial young voter demographic that now makes up a large portion of the American population.
As the 2016 election intensifies with each passing day, there’s one constant that young Americans can almost guarantee: an ongoing, unending and relentless presence of candidates online fighting for their votes.