Over the past two decades, social media has transformed the way candidates approach campaigning. Social media lets candidates meet potential voters and donors where they are. It can be a humanizing force. And it can even make our elections more competitive. In this guide, we’ll take a look at the historic impact of social media and how candidates today are using social media to get elected, plus tips for getting the most out of these revolutionary tools.
In 2023, social media is an essential part of an effective campaign strategy. But in 2008, Barack Obama made history when he became one of the first candidates to employ social media advertising as part of his campaign. Social media allowed Obama to create a grassroots movement, recruiting volunteers and raising funds for his campaign while empowering supporters across the United States.
Since then, social media has revolutionized the campaign process. The number of candidates leveraging social media has wildly increased, as has the extent of their online reach. In 2008, Obama had 5 million followers across 15 social media platforms. While that number was significant then, it looks rather small by today’s standards. For instance, as of July 2023, Sen. Bernie Sanders has 12.3 million followers on Twitter alone. Looking at the top two presidential candidates for 2024, Joe Biden has 37.3 million followers on Twitter, while Donald Trump has 86.5 million even though he has yet to return to the platform since being banned in 2021.
The amount of money spent on digital advertising has skyrocketed as well. In 2008, candidates spent $22.5 million on online political ads. Just two presidential elections later, in 2016, candidates spent $1.4 billion on online ads — 62 times as much money as in 2008.
Since 2018 to date, the candidate who has spent the most money on Facebook advertising is Michael Bloomberg, who ran for president in 2020. Bloomberg’s campaign spent $63,326,609 on Facebook ads. Coming after Bloomberg’s campaign in the list of Meta’s biggest political spenders are Trump, Biden, and the partisan political action committee (PAC) Stop Republicans.
Big spenders don’t just show up in presidential elections, either. The 2018 Texas Senate race saw incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz facing off against Beto O’Rourke. Together, the candidates spent $93 million campaigning — a new record for money spent in a U.S. Senate election — and much of those funds were both raised and spent on social media.
Together, these numbers tell a clear story: there is no denying the importance of social media in U.S. elections.
As the 2024 presidential election approaches, social media is already playing a crucial role. From a Trump-backing PAC tweeting an ad mocking Ron DeSantis for having “pudding fingers” to DeSantis himself attempting to announce his run via Twitter Spaces, there’s good reason FiveThirtyEight writer Kaleigh Rogers is predicting that the 2024 race will be “the most online election we’ve ever seen.” Social media is boosting the campaigns of well-known candidates, while helping to level the playing field for newcomers. Marianne Williamson, for instance, has reached 506.2 thousand followers on TikTok, engaging with a younger audience and spreading her campaign message.
Of course, traditional methods of campaigning still have influence. Strategies like canvassing, phone banking, and hosting in-person events are still essential to running an effective campaign. But social media is one of the most important tools in a viable candidate’s toolbox.
Here are four key ways social media can have a big impact on the outcome of political campaigns:
Have you ever wondered why certain people make it as political candidates and others don’t? One of the reasons comes down to money. Running a political campaign, especially at the state or national level, can be incredibly expensive. Just building name recognition — especially when running against an incumbent, who has already established a reputation — is an arduous process.
Incumbents also have access to more resources than challengers. More resources mean more opportunities to fundraise. In the 2021-2022 U.S. Senate elections, incumbent candidates raised a total of $830 million, while challengers raised only $389 million. Due to trends like this, the incumbency advantage can be hard to break. In some years, over 90 percent of incumbents running for reelection have won their elections.
Social media gives political newcomers and independents a greater chance of success. Social media lets candidates begin spreading their campaign message early and with little cost. It also makes it easier for supporters to create a grassroots movement around an underdog candidate.
After studying the effect of Twitter use on incumbents’ and challengers’ campaigns, the researchers Maria Petrova, Ananya Sen, and Pinar Yildirim concluded that social media can intensify competition by lowering the cost of entering the political field. The researchers found that opening a Twitter account significantly boosted the number of donations new political candidates received — while for incumbents, the effect of opening a Twitter account was fairly small.
In an interview about the study, Pinar Yildirim summarized their findings this way: “You don’t have to have the big money, big bucks, big fundraisers, big supporters to be able to communicate on Twitter with your constituency.” That power makes it easier for more candidates to compete in elections, giving voters more choices and helping to increase voter turnout.
Voters want to feel like the person they vote for is a real, relatable human being. Social media can build that bridge of connection between voters and candidates. Part of that power comes from the way social media lets candidates engage directly with supporters.
One current politician who often makes use of social media’s humanizing quality is Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. Grassley regularly tweets about his family farm using the hashtag #cornwatch, giving his followers updates on the progress of his corn fields — plus the occasional soybean spotlight, with #soybeanwatch popping up as well. Grassley also frequently posts photos of himself with constituents and other leaders. He often highlights the issues that are most important to the Iowa residents he meets. Altogether, Grassley’s social media strategy helps him appear more relatable and down-to-earth.
Pinar Yildirim, one of the authors of the study mentioned above, explained the humanizing effect of social media this way: “You can tell them about who you are, what your values are, and this is typically what we see politicians do. They talk about themselves. They talk about their dog, they talk about their favorite sports team, they talk about their favorite place to go in the neighborhood. Of course, you can always talk about your policies and what you hope to achieve if you were elected into an office. And you can do this way before you officially declare running for an office.”
Social media can be an incredible tool for organizing and rallying support, and is now an important way that candidates and nonpartisan groups can get out the vote. Individuals can also use social media to post about issues that matter to them in politics, encouraging their friends and neighbors to vote on election day.
In the leadup to the 2020 presidential election, candidates, organizations, and individuals used social media to get out the vote. The increase in digital efforts likely influenced the surge in first-time voting among young Americans. Compared to early voting in the 2016 election, 2020’s early voting period saw over twice as many people under 30 voting for the first time.
Many of us are familiar with the way social media platforms personalize the kinds of content we see. If you’ve ever blamed something on the TikTok “algorithm” or noticed a shift in your Instagram ads after checking out a certain product, you already have an idea of what microtargeting means.
The American Bar Association defines microtargeting as “a marketing strategy that uses people’s data — about what they like, who they’re connected to, what their demographics are, what they’ve purchased, and more — to segment them into small groups for content targeting.” Targeted advertising allows candidates to send ads and messages to particular groups of potential voters.
On one hand, personalized content can be effective and even helpful for voters. For instance, if a voter posts often and cares deeply about climate action, they may appreciate a targeted ad focusing on how a candidate plans to address climate change. On the other hand, microtargeting can spur on the spread of misinformation. Since targeted ads may only be seen by people who are already likely to agree with their views, fact checking and accountability becomes more difficult.
It’s important to acknowledge that social media has had both positive and negative impacts on political campaigns. While social media has the power to improve the chances of more independent-minded and people-powered candidates running for office, it has also been used in nefarious ways. One of the most prominent examples occurred in the 2016 presidential election, when Russian Twitter campaigns spread disinformation among American voters.
For any candidates running for office, it is essential to run a clean, transparent campaign — including in your social media strategy.
Here are three ways that candidates and politicians have gotten the most out of social media’s capabilities:
Social media allows for real-time communication between candidates and supporters. Whether a candidate is going live on Instagram or responding to comments on TikTok, social media removes the barrier between candidates and voters.
Candidates can succeed in this area by considering which platforms their supporters are most likely to use. According to data from the Pew Research Center, for instance, women are almost twice as likely as men to regularly consume news on Facebook. People ages 18-29 are the most likely to consume news on Snapchat. And those who lean toward the Democratic Party are more likely to view news on Twitter and Instagram than those who lean toward the Republican Party.
Another way candidates can succeed at meeting supporters where they are is by following digital platforms’ rules around political content. Ads about social issues, elections, or politics on Facebook must include a disclaimer stating who paid for the ad. Meanwhile, Twitter allows candidates to post political content, but not “false or misleading information” — and targeted advertising is only allowed based on a user’s location, age, gender, or interests. Finally, Meta’s new app Threads seeks to avoid prioritizing news and political content in its algorithm altogether.
By adhering to these standards and engaging in real-time communication with voters, candidates can make the most of social media’s potential.
It doesn’t just matter where a candidate posts campaign-related content. It also matters what they post. The way a candidate comes across can be just as important as the message they hope to convey.
As we’ve established, one of the superpowers social media gives candidates is the opportunity to humanize their campaigns. Part of that humanization encompasses things like introducing your dog to constituents, posting about #cornwatch, and letting voters know what you value outside of politics.
Another humanizing factor is the ability to draw supporters into the conversation. One study found that politicians who used more inclusive language, such as writing “we” instead of “I” in a post, tended to receive higher donations. So did politicians who referred to and responded to tweets by other users. The same holds true for politicians who make their social media content informative. In the same study, those who included a hyperlink or URL connecting to additional information received higher donations than those who did not.
These trends suggest something that may be intuitive for many Americans: voters want candidates who are real, authentic, and genuine. They also want candidates who are credible, able to support their claims and connect voters to more information.
The key to an effective social media strategy is in the first word of “social media”: social. Much of what makes social media such a powerful tool for candidates is its ability to let supporters engage in real time and help boost a campaign message. Grassroots movements can develop quickly on social media, as more and more supporters get involved and online activism increases.
Effective candidates can leverage this power by making it easy for followers to share and repost their social media content. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of tweets about political topics were actually retweets. An added 25 percent of political tweets were replies. For candidates planning their social media strategy, these trends mean that supporters will be more likely to reshare and repost content than to create original content about political topics or candidates.
Candidates can also tap into the power of social media by making it easy for supporters to get more of their network involved.
Social media has left a lasting mark on the shape of U.S. elections and political campaigns. While traditional methods of advertising and getting out the vote remain important, candidates can no longer ignore the power of social media. To learn more about how social media can impact political campaigns, check out this blog by Good Party’s resident social media expert, Colton Hess.