The Mobile Electorate

In 2008, Barack Obama redrafted the electioneering script, becoming the first presidential candidate to use social media as a political channel. His opponents’ failure to grasp the significance of social media proved as catastrophic as Richard Nixon’s dismissive attitude to television in 1960 — an attitude that probably cost him the 1960 election to the more telegenic John F. Kennedy.

That historic debate marked the beginning of a new political epoch in which mass media campaigns were the only game in town. For the next half century, presidents were made and un-made in a network television culture that was fervently centrist and uncontroversial — what Richard Wald called “cementers of idea, not disruptors of idea.”

Since Obama dealt the first major blow to that monolithic approach with his inaugural campaign, election campaigns have slowly returned to the grassroots — albeit of a digital variety. Presidential candidates ignore online activism and fundraising at their peril — just ask Mitt Romney, who failed to learn the lessons of 2008 just as his opponent built on them to secure a second term.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — every online tool used by the Democrats four years ago is now in the arsenal of the current crop of candidates, but the electorate has changed the way it accesses those channels. Last year, mobile usage exceeded desktop for the first time. Not a blip — a tipping point. Now, voters are more likely to turn to their smartphones than to their TVs, laptops, PCs or print media.

According to comScore, mobile usage in 2014 accounted for 60 percent of time spent using digital media. In a presidential contest that hasn’t resulted in a victory margin of more than 8.5 percent for 30 years, the huge-and-growing mobile electorate is not to be swiped left by anyone expecting to win.

If the message and the delivery system have both been switched out, where the hell does that leave the messenger?

The full effects of a mobile-centric campaign culture may not be felt until 2020 or later. The candidate pool is still largely comprised of super PAC-powered establishment figures, some of whom have a dynastic leg-up, to boot. But can such an apparent head start continue to be enough? Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton might give differing answers to that question. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, funded by small personal donations, has given Clinton’s more traditional big money strategy a genuine contest.

Then there’s Donald Trump. Figures released in December by NBC News showed the Republican frontrunner had spent just $21,700 on broadcast advertising; the combined total TV ad spend for the three favorites (Carson, Cruz and Trump) was a tenth of the $28.9 million spent by Bush. Bush’s broadcast spending has now swelled to more than $40 million. Ahead of the South Carolina Primary this weekend, Trump is currently polling at 35 percent, Bush at 8 percent.

Not that television isn’t still enormously influential. It’s just that Trump’s campaign is the only one willing or able to dominate the media without relying on ad dollars. According to CNN, he racked up 234 minutes of network coverage between January and November of last year, compared with Bush’s 56 minutes. Based on the NBC campaign spending figures from December, that equates to $94 for every minute of Trump coverage, versus $714,000 for every minute of Bush coverage. Ninety-four dollars!

To put that in perspective, Bush’s spend-per-minute is roughly what it would cost to place a 60-second commercial in a primetime network slot; Trump’s outlay would just about get you a black-and-white column inch in Minneapolis’ monthly North News.

And yet, look again at those polling figures.

With considerably less financial means at his disposal — and worlds away, politically speaking — there is one thing Bernie Sanders has in common with Trump: an avowed rejection of corporate influence (excluding the Trump Organization, natch!). If you had to reduce their popular appeal down to a single issue, eschewing “dark money” support would probably be it. This tack would have gotten them nowhere a few election cycles ago. Now it’s the basis of their respective campaigns, and it’s working a treat.

Sanders and Trump have demonstrated that it’s a lot easier to live tweet your campaign travails with clean hands. Both candidates have veered so wildly off-script that mainstream media outlets can’t compute or comprehend — let alone compete with — the messages being delivered directly to the palms of voters. That those messages have veered off in polar opposite directions makes their job twice as tough.

In what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls “the mobius strip of Trump coverage,” two large, acutely structured organizational fields — news media and presidential campaigns — have rapidly and simultaneously had their basic assumptions discarded. If the message and the delivery system have both been switched out, where the hell does that leave the messenger?

Some of the most vocal campaigners in this race have never attended a rally, or even voted before.

As the electorate moves toward consuming and sharing information via niche channels, and away from engaging directly with mainstream media, candidates are following suit (it’s no surprise that mainstream candidates are dragging their heels while niche candidates can’t quite believe their luck). It’s as if the aforementioned mobile-desktop tipping point is playing out on the political landscape, with Clinton and Bush as the familiar and powerful but static PCs, and Trump and Sanders the fleet-footed, flexible but small-time smartphones.

This development doesn’t feel like a blip either.

Network television is becoming a legacy platform because voters can engage with what it broadcasts via the same digital channels they use to access everything else. It doesn’t work the other way round. Mainstream media gatekeepers face obsolescence because the social Web simply opens its own gates, by the thousands, every day.

This new, mobilized — and mobile-ized — electorate is a force to be reckoned with. As we head into the primaries, the sturdiness of these digital grassroots will be tested to their limit. Some of the most vocal campaigners in this race have never attended a rally, or even voted before. They’ve contributed every piece of their support — from fundraising to partisan point-scoring — via a screen. The significant change since 2012 is the size of that screen.