In 2016, I had just completed my degree in Political Science at the State University of New York in Buffalo and was working at the Western New York office of a liberal Democrat Senator. I was there during the presidential election campaign and, due to the alliance between my then-boss and Hillary Clinton, I had my toe dipped into the campaign of the former Secretary of State.
We all know the result of that momentous election, but with my communications hat on, my summary of the communication strategies adopted by both sides would be: negativity and Twitter. In the recent mid-term elections, this was the case again – and then some!
So what communication lessons are there from these two fiercely contested votes?
There has been a huge shift in the communications platforms and messaging used by U.S politicians. In a country with a fairly conservative political-scene, the candidates and supporting politicians all used Twitter as a part of their campaign continuously. It is a communications channel they can own and its potential effectiveness in galvanising support as part of a wider campaign is now beyond question.
The social media platform that was previously seen as a teenager’s chatroom became two American presidential contenders’ virtual battlefield. The strategy of Donald Trump, in particular, has been to weaponise Twitter and the concept of hate in order to reach the public and whip the mainstream media into a frenzy.
So how did Donald Trump get to this point?
When Trump joined Twitter in 2009, he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted – far more so than politicians in office. Back then Trump was just a reality TV star, and the majority of American incumbents maintained a formal and respectful tone.
Soon, however, his tweets went from rants to strategies. Once Trump became a presidential candidate, his camp was single-minded in its use of Twitter (and other social media, such as Facebook) in order to control the news agenda. It produced posts tactically and strategically.
He addresses issues of his interest and publicises his opinions. He sets the news agenda and, even when the facts say otherwise, he utilises social media to let his opinion be heard.
There is no doubt that the President has heralded a new era of communication in American politics. He introduced a style that is personal, frequent and instant. However, his style remains unique – we may never see another politician use social media in quite the same way that Trump does.
The recent mid-term election saw something of the much-hyped ‘blue wave’ of Democratic support, but does this mean Trump’s influence is on the wane?
One thing is for sure – his influence on political communication is here to stay, most notably the way he uses fear to connect with many Americans.
Other politicians on all sides have been taking note. Whoever the candidates in the 2020 Presidential Election, we can be certain of two things: the campaigns will be negative; and social media will be used to connect with the hearts and minds of potential voters.