Today begins what no doubt will be a remarkable presidential election campaign. Hillary Clinton announced on Twitter this afternoon that she is running (again) to be president of the United States. Because changes in American politics move faster than our four-year election cycles, this election cycle will yet again prove (again) to be one of many “firsts”.
In particular, this election will mark the first time that any major presidential candidate will attempt to establish a social media presence in the absence of Barack Obama. While Obama’s 2012 social media campaign was more carefully constructed than his 2008 outreach, Obama has earned the distinction of being the first and only presidential candidate to command a domineering presence on social media. With Obama no longer in the picture, the social media field is wide open and Clinton seems like the heir apparent to the social media throne.
This afternoon, Hillary Clinton took her announcement to Twitter and YouTube, rather than announce her run in front of a cheering crowd of supporters. This strategic move signifies a significant shift in how the public and politicians think about communicating with the public. But it we examine presidential candidates and their social media usage, it is astounding to see how the social media landscape has changed even in the last 8 years. On the eve of the 2008 election, @barackobama only had 125,000 Twitter followers. Fast forward to 2012 and that number exploded 22,000,000. Obama has always enjoyed a significant advantage over his competitors, Clinton included. For example, in 2012, Barack Obama had almost 3x as many Facebook friends than Mitt Romney.
Thus, with two challengers, 2016 looks to be a landmark election for social media. Although Clinton made the announcement on Twitter, she only joined in June 2013 when a photo of her on a C-17 flying to Libya—-on her Blackberry with sunglasses on, went viral. Her first tweet was directed to the owners of the “Texts from Hillary” Tumblr, thanking them for the inspiration, but also adding the hashtag #tweetsfromhillary.
As of last night, @tedcruz had 391,000 followers, @DrRandPaul had 43,000 followers. While the field is still wide open with the election more than a year away, @hillaryclinton has amassed more 3,140,000 followers since opening the account less than two years ago. Social media isn’t a panacea for all the trials and tribulations for a presidential campaign. But it has many positive and real effects in a campaign: effective and efficient communication, a readily available and vocal mobilizing force, the ability to appeal to small donors, etc. And if other candidates want to win the White House, they better keep an eye on Hillary Clinton and her Twitter account.