Having finished within .3 percentage points of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has—at least for now—transformed the Democratic presidential primary from a coronation into a horse race. The results show that Democrats are looking for more than experience and electability in a general election candidate; but not to be overlooked is the significant role social and digital media strategy play in electoral politics today.
Taking a page from the Obama playbook of 2008 and 2012, the Sanders campaign has dominated both the search engines and the social conversation. The result is Deja vu all over again for the Hillary camp.
In terms of search volume, Sanders was the subject of 52 percent of all Google queries related to Democratic candidates during the run up to Iowa. That he outpaced Hillary (42 percent) is not surprising, given her unprecedented familiarity with Democratic voters. But when those same voters turned to the first page of Google results to form their initial impressions about Bernie, what they found was overwhelmingly positive—and what we learn first, lasts. Eight of those results led directly to Sanders-controlled content. Five led to positive traditional media stories. One led to his Wikipedia profile. And one led to a negative traditional media story. With apologies to Meatloaf, “fourteen out of fifteen ain’t bad.”
Simply put, the Sanders campaign controlled Google—and thus what voters saw, heard, and read first when forming their initial perceptions.
On Facebook, 42.2 percent of all conversations about the Iowa Caucuses were about Bernie. Second place was Donald Trump at 21.7 percent. Bernie’s figure was more than triple the number of conversations about Hillary, who came in at 13.1 percent. And on Monday, the day of the Caucuses, Sanders won more Facebook likes than any other candidate. His 15,695 new followers nearly tripled Hillary’s 6,210. On Twitter, Sanders commanded the lion’s share of the conversation on Monday as well. His 77,000 mentions outpaced Hillary by 25,000—continuing a trend that built Sanders’ base of support in the first place.
Sanders’ smart use of social media has a three-pronged effect in the digital age of politics—each of which was on display yesterday in Iowa. First, it helps negate the big money advantage enjoyed by establishment candidates who can afford big TV ad buys. Second, it leverages the viral nature of the Web to exponentially expand a candidate’s messaging reach. And third, it provides an avenue for a next-generation approach to GOTV (Get Out the Vote). A call or knock on the door from a volunteer asking if you’ve voted yet is one thing. A Facebook post from a trusted friend asking the same is quite another.
Whether Bernie’s advantages in the digital space will continue through New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and beyond remains to be seen. We may very well find that a strong challenge is precisely what Hillary needs to energize the base both online and off. What we do know is that Bernie’s finish in Iowa was miles ahead of what anyone thought was possible just a few months ago—and that the social savvy of his campaign (and its youthful, highly-connected supporters) is largely to thank.
Richard Levick, Esq., is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global strategic communications firm.