Campaigning in the Digital Age

Photo Source: The Nation 

The United States of America is living through a time unlike any other. The digital age has ushered in many changes for the country. One way in which digital communications are impacting the country are in the way it has changed American political campaigns. Look no further than Election 2016, where every candidate relied on digital communications, particularly President-Elect Donald Trump. There are four main ways in which this new technology has changed the way campaigns work. It has changed political information acquisition, or where voters get their information. It has also changed political discourse, allowing Americans the ability to interact with candidates. In addition, it has changed the game in mobilizing supporters. Finally, one of the greatest changes to campaigns are in the way it affects fundraising.

Newspapers were once the leader in providing Americans their information, but that is no longer the case. The advent of the Internet has changed the game, and print media is falling behind. In 2000, just 11% of voters said they used the Internet as their main source of campaign news (Graber). In 2012, that total was up to 47% – almost half of the country (Graber). In the meantime, newspaper and magazine readership are down, while television has seen a slight decrease, and radio has remained steady but not strong (Graber). The first American political campaign website was for California Senator Diane Feinstein in 1994 (Ridout). In the early days of campaign websites, they were typically “brochure formats” where voters could learn about the candidate, or find volunteer information (Ridout). By 2000, the campaign website was prevalent in gubernatorial, congressional, and presidential elections (Ridout).

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Howard Dean on the campaign trail in 2004 

Photo Source: Huffington Post 


Political scientists such as Anthony Rotolo believe that campaigns began to become more involved in digital communications to meet voter demands for more access to information. Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the Democratic Primary was groundbreaking in this way. The Dean Campaign website included a feature called “The Blog for America” which allowed voters to communicate together, and receive daily updates from the Dean Campaign staff (Ridout). Over 2,000 comments a day were posted to the site, allowing the campaign immediate feedback and insight on the issues that mattered most to American Democrats (Ridout). By the time the 2008 election came, campaigns realized that voters accessed the Internet for campaign news. Barack Obama’s bid for the Presidency was in part a success because of his use of social media. His campaign posted around 1,800 videos while Republican John McCain only posted about 300 videos (Fox). One such ad which had a major impact on the campaign was the “Yes We Can” ad featuring celebrity singer (Ridout). It went viral, reaching over 17 million views within its first two months, making headlines and giving Obama positive media coverage (Ridout). Now campaigns were no longer trying to produce ad content for television, but they were doing it online as well.

This way in which political information acquisition changed in turn changed political discourse. With Dean’s 2004 “Blog for America,” not only were voters getting more information, they were discussing it as well, and having a larger voice in managing the candidate’s campaign. In 2008, then Senator Obama was referred to as “The King of Social Media,” because of the campaign’s ability to not only allow voters a platform to interact with each other, but allow voters to interact with their candidate (Ridout). Budding social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube allowed a candidate to post their message, and allow voters to respond to them. The Obama campaign sent out around 7,000 messages targeting different voters (Riodut). This was a new strategy to political campaigns called, “microtargeting.” Campaigns find out the issues that matter most to different slices of the electorate by accessing consumer information and organizing them into databases (Ridout). From here, a campaign may create a webpage that appeals to Catholics in the hope of getting their vote, or get a hashtag trending that attracts the youth vote. To prove just how effective the Obama strategy was, compare his over 2 million followers on Facebook to the 600,000 of John McCain (Ridout). Recent elections have proven that there are negative effects as well, as political discourse can become very negative very quickly. John Freie, political scientist, writes that campaigns have become image focused in the age of cable television and the internet. This makes campaigns often less substantive and just for show. Additionally, there is a lot of noise online, which competes with the traditional journalist. The credibility of both can be questioned, leaving voters to wonder who they can trust as they surround themselves in their online “echo chambers” of only views reinforcing their own (Fox). As political scientist Doris Graber notes, there are potentially serious ramifications for weakened journalism and negative political discourse that divides an increasingly partisan electorate.

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Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008.

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Clearly, voters found themselves online during the elections of the New Millennium, and here they were communicating digitally with each other and their candidate’s campaigns. This allowed for a couple of major advancements in the way campaigns themselves function. Social networking boomed with the advent of social media. Making connections and meeting people online was seen by campaigns as an opportunity to mobilize supporters who wanted to get involved in the campaigns (Ridout). Howard Dean’s revolutionary 2004 campaign featured a “Meetup” tool on his campaign website where supporters could meet up in their local areas to campaign on behalf of Dean (Ridout). It was a precursor to the days of social media. On social media, campaigns can make appeals to their supporters by increasing their levels of enthusiasm. As previously mentioned, posting campaign ads with positive reinforcing messages can help mobilize the support of a campaign (Fox). As noted in the political science publication, New Directions in Media and Politics, it didn’t take long for political campaigns to realize that the only people who were likely going to see their online content were those who already had an interest in the candidate. Online content has to be sought out, making it a motivated medium (Fox). Once campaigns realized this, starting with the Obama v. McCain race in 2008, their online content became tailored to their base supporters, where television content was geared to a general population audience, focusing solely on negative attack material (Freie). Social media has proven to be very important in mobilizing supporters. Beyond political campaigns in America, the digital communications of the people are stifled in authoritarian countries where the leaders fear allowing free speech will undermine their control and mobilize dissidents (Shirky). With so many advancements made to political campaigns with new digital communications, the need for money is something that is not new.

While political campaigns have always relied on money to operate effectively, the way campaigns make money has changed slightly with digital communications. As stated in Mass Media and American Politics, the “greatest benefit” digital communications have made to political campaigns in America is with fundraising. Again it was Howard Dean’s bid for the Democratic nomination for President in 2004 that changed campaign fundraising (Ridout). Previously, where campaigns would get most of their money would be from holding large dinners with high ticket prices for prominent donors. This was the strategy used by the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 (Ridout). What Dean was doing at the time was raising just as much money through small donations online. Additionally, Dean was holding dinners, but with local residents in small communities, touching actual voters who got out to attend through communications posted on his campaign website (Ridout). Average contributions to Dean’s campaign were around $140 dollars (Ridout). By the end of the campaign he raised a monumental $40 million dollars online (Ridout). But for all the advancements the Dean campaign made in using digital communications effectively, ironically it would be the downfall of his campaign. A now infamous viral video of Dean screeching at a campaign rally was the nail in the coffin for his campaign, proving that in the new age of digital communications, candidates could make very little missteps (Graber). Since those days, online fundraising has become even larger. In 2008, soon to be President Obama averaged $80 a day in online campaign contributions (Ridout). It helped carry him to the White House, and again when he ran for re-election in 2012. In his last run for office, President Obama raised over $690 million during the election cycle (Graber). The funds raised online are used by the campaigns in a number of ways, but often go right back into it. They are used to hire staffers and analysts who track online activity that is relevant to campaigns, they help pay for and develop online content and campaign ads, and organize events which may be promoted online (Graber). It can be expected that fundraising will continue to be the backbone of political campaigns in America for a long time, and digital commutations will continue to play a lead role.

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Donald Trump sits in his office. 

Photo Source: The Seattle Times 


After over a year and a half, the bruising campaigns of Election 2016 came to an end with the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency on November 8, 2016. This election cycle continued the recent trend of relying on digital communications to run a successful campaign, proving that the digital age has transformed American political campaigns forever. In many ways these changes are positive, but there are negative effects that come with them, which over time democracy can only hope are perfected. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was relatively unknown before his run for the Democratic nomination for President in 2016 (Nussbaum). To gain name recognition and compete with somebody as nationally and internationally known as Secretary Hillary Clinton, the Sanders campaign met all the necessary requirements for effectively using digital communications. In fact, the Sanders campaign, as stated in Politico was one of the most effective campaigns in the modern age of Presidential campaigns when it comes to using the Internet. The Sanders campaign website gave voters access to a wealth of information, and changed political discourse within the campaign to focus on issues important to Sanders such as college tuition, Wall Street and the control of “the billionaires” (Nussbaum). The use of the Internet was especially effective in mobilizing support with the use of social media, particularly on college campuses among the students who made up the core of Sanders’ support. However, where the Sanders campaign shattered records was in fundraising. The number of small contribution that were pouring into the Sanders campaign were record breaking, and gave the candidate the much needed resources he needed to compete with Secretary Clinton. Just 23 hours after winning the New Hampshire Primary, Sanders set a record with $6.3 million in small donations to his campaign (Nussbaum).

Senator Sanders’ was able to stay neck and neck with Secretary Clinton for much of the campaign thanks in large part to the use of digital communication. However, it was Clinton who faced off against Trump in the general election, after he used digital communications to rise above the field of sixteen total Republican candidates for President. Trump’s success was in large part due to his exploitation of television (Politico). But Trump’s relationship with the press was always touch-and-go. To avoid one-one confrontations with the press he came to view as “corrupt” he used social media to connect with the voters, most infamously on Twitter (Rotolo). When Trump tweeted, he was often retweeting actual voters or online articles published on right-leaning websites (Make America Great Again). By the general election, every claim Trump made, and has continued to make online, is accepted by his supporters as truth and often makes headlines. Much of this rhetoric can be very partisan, and has the potential to polarize the electorate further. One such tweet was sent out on October 24 just before Election Day and sated “Wow, just came out on secret tape that Crooked Hillary wants to take in as many Syrians as possible. We cannot let this happen – ISIS!” (Make America Great Again). It was liked over 55,000 times and retweeted over 26,000 times (Make America Great Again). Since being elected, these kinds of attacks and unsubstantiated claims have not stopped. Trump is in the news right now for a tweet that claimed he would have won the popular vote if it had not been for voter fraud. During the general election, the Clinton campaign had a large online presence as is necessary in today’s elections. One of the strategies most employed by Clinton was the use of hashtags across different forms of social media to connect the voters, and drive discussion (Nussbaum). The popular #I’mWithHer became a rallying cry and pseudo-campaign slogan for Clinton (Nussbaum). However, as the end result shows, Clinton’s online presence could not compete with Trump’s.

It is a time unlike any other for the United States of America. The digital age has brought many changes to the country, including the way in which digital communications are impacting American political campaigns. It has changed political information acquisition and it has also changed political discourse, allowing Americans the ability to interact with candidates. In addition, particularly with social media, it has changed the game in mobilizing supporters. Finally, one of the greatest changes to campaigns are in the way it affects fundraising, allowing even unknown candidates to rise to political prominence. The election which only ended a number of weeks ago proved that digital commutations for better or for worse. Going forward, American political campaigns will need to control the negative effects, and continue to use new technology positively.


Fox, Richard Logan., and Jennifer M. Ramos. IPolitics: Citizens, Elections, and Governing in the New Media Era. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.
Freie, John. “Postmodern Politics in America.” Society 49.9 (2012): 323-327. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Graber, Doris A. Mass Media and American Politics. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 2014. Print.
“Make America Great Again.” Make America Great Again | Donald J. Trump. Donald J. Trump for President, June 2015. Web. Nov. 2016.
Nussbaum, Matthew, and Madeline Conway. “How Bernie Built a Fundraising Juggernaut.” POLITICO. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2016.
Ridout, Travis N. New Directions in Media and Politics. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013. Print.
Rotolo, Anthony. “Tweeting To Power: The Social Media Revolution in American       Politics.” Political Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell) 130.1 (2015): 154-155. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media.” 2013: n. pag. Print.

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