During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln responded to Douglas’ public indifference to slavery with this timely prophetic statement: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” How is public sentiment created and molded to a particular view strong enough to not only influence elections, but also be responsible for winning elections?
We have been praising and criticizing political leaders using verbal and written speech communication through personal appearances, rallies, pamphlets, and door to door canvassing since the Greek and Roman civilizations. In the modern era, radio and television revolutionized the immediacy of campaigning and put candidates’ voices and faces in everyone’s living room. In the age of rapidly developing technology political communication phenomena in principle and practice have evolved and expanded into the realm of the internet and social media including Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, et al.
By 1980, it was estimated that 25 percent of voters were willing to cast their vote for or against a candidate based on a single, wedge issue. In the past, grassroots activists could react quickly with people power to wedge issues like abortion, gun control and school vouchers on the local, state, and national level. Supporters could telephone Congress people, send telegrams and write letters without public appearances or having candidates appear in person. In this approach public sentiment evolved over time as information was disseminated to the voting public gradually, but 21st century technology has altered the manner in which information is delivered to the public.
The advent of social media has changed the dynamic of speech communication and expanded the term from “immediate” to “instantaneous.” One of the best examples is the war in Libya. The rebellion in Libya was reported minute-by-minute as Twitter was used by journalists and civilians to broadcast events as they happened. Civilians were in the forefront of creating an image of war in Libya together with journalists. Similarly as groundbreaking but without the citizen reporting component is how for the first time images of war were broadcasted on television of the Vietnam War to Americans. The difference now is citizens are becoming instrumental in molding and creating news and with it public sentiment and activism. The drawback is the veracity of reporting using social media by those who are not bound to professional honesty can be problematic. Still, the impact of on scene accounts such as events in Libya and Egypt cannot be underestimated.
How is social media changing political campaigns?
The internet and social media are changing how political campaigns are operated and how politicians stay connected to their constituency. One important aspect is the continuous campaigning by political figures using personal websites, which means they are engaging their base before and after they are elected, not only during an election year. The focus is on participation, donations, and public outreach.
Participation: Engagement by followers on a political site using social media like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin et al reaches supporters and potential supporters in numbers that far outreach other single sources like individual newspaper advertising or even television, which has prime time hours. The internet’s use is prime time 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Donations: Grassroots campaigning using the internet and social media is a conduit for small donations by individuals versus large campaign donation events, while large donation events are valuable, the hard numbers of individuals reached using social media outlets far exceeds individual events.
Public Outreach: Digital mechanisms to determine who the base is in terms of demographics can direct strategy. These statistics can be collected and analyzed easily and quickly using data processing methods. Political candidates can create a social media newsroom for bloggers and news organizations. Members can be tracked and counted on social sites using bit.ly url. Outreach for donations and support using social media can pinpoint demographics in determining where to campaign more and also where donations originate.
Imagine social media as a giant funnel. Use of Linkedin to connect with a constituency and chart rates of invitations accepted and follow up communication provide statistics for developing campaign strategies toward specific groups or areas that need more intervention. Business models for campaigning can be designed using the same marketing models businesses use to determine the efficacy of specific advertisers.
Social Media challenges Super PACS
Super PACs work to defeat the influence and thrust of grassroots mechanisms. A political action committee (PAC) is any organization in the United States that campaigns for or against political candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation. At the federal level, an organization becomes a PAC when it receives or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election, according to the Federal Election Campaign Act.
Maria-Teresa Kumar wrote in Politico last February that Super PACs will feel the pressure of social media. “Campaign teams, political insiders and journalists have focused on Citizens United-fueled super PACs as the compelling new dynamic of 2012. But as we move into the general election, social media may prove to be a powerful counterweight to these super PACs."
Kumar cites the potential defunding of Planned Parenthood and The Susan G. Komen Foundation incident as an example. The scheme was discovered unleashing a massive response on Feministing and other blogs uncovering that Komen’s top brass was largely Republican and had recently brought on a Georgia politician who campaigned on defunding Planned Parenthood.
In genuine outrage millions of people activated their personal networks via Twitter and Facebook and within three days, Planned Parenthood was flooded with $3 million in donations and the Komen Foundation was successfully challenged using digital media.
Social media is the beginning of a new era when ground up strategies put consumers instantly in communication with millions perhaps billions of people without the need for formal news reporting. This would not have been possible five or 10 years ago.
Politicians will continue to kiss babies, open supermarkets, shake your hand, and produce distressing negative ads. But they will also be maximizing their political potential using social media to engage their base and beyond, rally grassroots support 24/7 with a media specialist sitting at a computer, develop outreach to further perfect campaign strategies and analyze demographics. The digital age is indeed an equalizer, while some Super PACs could have a slight advantage in donations, social media individuals definitely have the edge in their ability to mobilize millions into action and affect public sentiment with just a phone or a computer and their fingertips!
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Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices by Judith S. Trent, Robert V. Friedenberg, Robert Denton Jr.; 2011.