On July 29, the Bernie Sanders campaign held the largest grassroots kickoff event thus far in the campaign, getting 3,520 supporters to open their homes, coffee shops, and offices to host Bernie livestreaming his message. The way the event was marketed and executed potentially foreshadows some differences in how the major political campaigns will reach out to local voters during this election season.
It’s self-evident that campaigns should be promoted at local levels, where word-of-mouth buzz can truly happen within neighborhoods. People participate and make contributions more readily when they are personally affected by the candidate’s political mission, or are acting upon the personal requests from the friends, neighbors and local organizations close to them.
In the 2012 election year, social media proved that it can connect candidates with their constituents on a macro scale. During that campaign, President Obama did town hall meetings and Q&As on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Reddit and Google+ — and the campaign was lauded for building the largest grassroots operation in presidential campaign history. But at the micro level in 2012, retail politics was still done the same way as before: local canvassing still meant volunteering at a local campaign office to perform the phone calls, engage people door-to-door, and get neighbors and friends to participate. What was missing at the field campaign offices was a local social media presence to galvanize the community electorate. If you were in the community but not on the Obama campaign’s email list, you likely weren’t alerted to any local events or rallies.
#Election2016 will digitally connect constituents at the local level
News, particularly breaking political news, is still the way constituents follow politics and elections. The difference between now and 2012 is in how breaking news is being consumed and how it is shared. In 2012, breaking news was still consumed on traditional media like CNN and Fox, and their websites; sharing on social media required one additional step to post on Twitter or Facebook.
But in 2015, news is more and more likely to be consumed on social media timelines (see the chart on the right), which now play the role of news aggregator — and easily shared with a simple RT or share button. For #Election2016, Twitter and Facebook are more likely to play the duel role of news bearer and the social connector. This dynamic facilitates the building of hundreds of local Twitter news feeds and Facebook groups that share political news and accrue commentary at the community level. In line with this thinking, the next step in Bernie Sanders’ campaign is to build a field network of social media feeds in the hundreds of cities where they have established on the ground advocacy.
And local matters. Social media gives individuals voices, but they want their political voices to be heard, and appreciated in the context of their community. Leaving a comment on a candidate’s Facebook page along with thousands others doesn’t reach nor impact the commenter’s intimate circle of local friends and neighbors. Localizing this dialogue creates community bonding and results in turnout.
What a Campaign’s Field Social Media Looks Like
In 2016, field operations should create local news-based social media venues — Facebook groups and Twitter streams at the very least — to ensure that their local operatives and advocates have a forum and voice that can engage directly with their communities. The field communications corps can be set up like a local news team, with editors and contributors using social media to report on candidate and election news, provide local analysis and policy interpretation, and promote community events.
For a national campaign headquarters, the management and coordination of hundreds of local field ops is similar as in 2012, but media distribution is more efficient with the localized network. The syndication of relevant political news can be centrally managed, even automated, across field offices’ social media based on the curation of trusted media sources, both national and local, who report on the candidate. Candidates can use their Facebook page or Twitter feed as a hub, and distribute their posts across the field network. Commentary on the posts would be localized, and enhance engagement within the community.
A national network of local social media feeds can extend candidate messaging to the grassroots. Just as Bernie Sanders beamed his message into living rooms and coffee shops across America on July 29, the local network can act as the channel for recurrent livestreaming that can be customized to the state, particularly battle states like Ohio. Presidential campaigns notwithstanding, the building of localized networks will work for campaigns at the state and local levels using the same concepts of building a field network that extend to the small town and neighborhood level. Sanders is really the only candidate so far building this kind of localized social network.