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date: 23 May 2019

New Media and Political Campaigns

Abstract and Keywords

New media have been playing an increasingly central role in American elections since they first appeared in 1992. While television remains the main source of election information for a majority of voters, digital communication platforms have become prominent. New media have triggered changes in the campaign strategies of political parties, candidates, and political organizations; reshaped election media coverage; and influenced voter engagement. This chapter examines the stages in the development of new media in elections from the use of rudimentary websites to the rise sophisticated social media. It discusses the ways in which new media differ from traditional media in terms of their form, function, and content; identifies the audiences for new election media; and examines the effects on voter interest, knowledge, engagement, and turnout. Going forward, scholars need to employ creative research methodologies to catalogue and analyze new campaign media as they emerge and develop.

Keywords: 527 groups, broadcast media, brochureware, technological convergence, microtargeting, narrowcasting, new media, social media

The 1992 presidential election ushered in a new era of campaign media. Candidates turned to entertainment venues to circumvent the mainstream press’s stranglehold on the campaign agenda. This development was marked by the signature moments of businessman Ross Perot launching his third party presidential bid on Larry King Live and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton donning dark shades and playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. At the same time, voters became more visibly engaged with campaign media, especially through call-in radio and television programs. Communication researchers speculated about the dawn of a new era of campaign media, alternately praising its populist tendencies and lamenting its degradation of political discourse. These forms of new media primarily made use of traditional print, radio, and television media platforms.

In the years since, new technologies have transformed the campaign media system and in the process altered the ways in which campaigns are waged by candidates, reported on by journalists, and experienced by voters. New campaign media have proliferated and become increasingly prominent with each passing election. Social media platforms that facilitate interaction and collaboration in the production, dissemination, and exchange of content have become campaign mainstays. Candidates employ complex media strategies incorporating an ever-changing menu of innovations in conjunction with traditional media management techniques. Campaign reporting is no longer the exclusive province of professional journalists, as bloggers and average citizens cover events and provide commentary that is widely available. Voters look to new media as primary sources of information and participate actively in campaigns through digital platforms.

The New Media Campaign Environment

A multilayered communication environment exists for election campaigns. The media system is transitioning from a broadcast model associated with traditional media (p. 824) where general-interest news items are disseminated to the mass public through a narrowcasting model where carefully crafted messages target discrete audience segments. On the one hand, the mainstream press maintains an identifiable presence. Much original and investigative campaign reporting is conducted by professional journalists, even as financial pressures have forced the industry to reduce their numbers drastically. Mainstream media still validate information disseminated via new media platforms, such as blogs and Twitter feeds. At the same time, the proliferation of new media has increased the diversification and fragmentation of the communication environment. Media are more politically polarized, as niche sources associated with extreme ideological positions appeal to growing sections of the audience. The abundance of new sources makes it possible for voters to tailor their media consumption to conform to their personal tastes (Sunstein, 2000; Jamieson and Cappella, 2008; Stroud, 2011; Levendusky, 2013).

The evolution of campaign communication in the new media era can be construed as three distinct yet overlapping phases, as depicted in Figure 56.1.

Old Media, New Politics

During the “old media, new politics” phase, candidates used established nonpolitical and entertainment media to bypass mainstream press gatekeepers, who reduced their messages to eight-second sound bites sandwiched between extensive commentary. Candidates sought to reach voters who were less attentive to print and television news through personal appeals in the media venues they frequented. “Old media, new politics” thrives in the current era, as candidates seek the favorable and widespread coverage they can garner from a cover story in People Weekly and appearances on the talk and comedy show circuit (Baum, 2005). This type of election media laid the foundation for the personalized soft news coverage that permeates twenty-first-century new media campaigns. While rudimentary websites, or “brochureware,”—defined as web versions of traditional print campaign flyers—that served as digital repositories of campaign documents first appeared in 1992 (Davis, 1999), old media technologies remained dominant during this phase.

New Media, New Politics 1.0

The second phase—“new media, new politics 1.0”—witnessed the introduction of novel election communication platforms made possible by technological innovations. By the year 2000 election, all major and many minor candidates had basic websites that were heavily text-based (Bimber and Davis, 2003). Campaign websites incorporating interactive elements—including features that allowed users to engage in discussions, donate to candidates, and volunteer—became standard in the 2004 election. Election-related blogs also proliferated, offering voters an alternative to corporate news products (p. 825) (Cornfield, 2004; Foot and Schneider, 2006). Internet use in midterm elections lagged somewhat behind presidential campaign applications. Many congressional candidates had basic websites in 2006, but few included blogs, fundraising tools, or volunteer-building applications (The Bivings Group, 2006).

Figure 56.1. Phases of new media in election campaigns.

Characteristics

Examples

  • Old Media, New Politics

  • 1992-1994

Established nonpolitical and entertainment media formats accommodate election communication; web campaigning is primitive

  • Call-in Radio and Television

  • Late Night Television Shows

  • News Magazine Programs

  • Music Television (MTV)

  • Print and Television Tabloids

  • ‘Brochureware’ Websites

  • New Media, New Politics 1.0

  • 1996-2006

Internet technology facilitates the development of new forms of campaign communication with interactive capabilities

  • Websites with Interactive Features

  • Email

  • Discussion Boards

  • Blogs

  • Meetups

  • New Media, New Politics 2.0

  • 2008-present

Expanded and sophisticated use of digital technology for campaign applications characterized by higher levels of interactive information sharing, networking, collaboration, community-building, and engagement; use of “big data” to personalize voter appeals

  • Full-Service Websites

  • Social Media

  • Video Sharing Sites

  • Twitter

  • Microblogging Sites

  • Mobile Device Applications

  • iMedia Applications

New Media, New Politics 2.0

The 2008 presidential election marked the beginning of the third phase in the evolution of election media—“new media, new politics 2.0.” This period is distinguished by innovations in digital election communication that facilitate networking, collaboration and community building as well as active engagement. Campaign websites became full-service multimedia platforms where voters could find extensive information about the candidates as well as election logistics, access and share videos and ads, blog, and provide commentary, donate, and take part in volunteer activities. The most notable development in 2008 was the use of social media, such as Facebook, and video sharing sites, like YouTube, for peer-to-peer exchange of election information, campaign organizing, and election participation. Mainstream media organizations kept pace with these developments by incorporating social media and video sharing features into their digital platforms. These new media innovations were amplified in the 2010 midterm elections, with Twitter and microblogging sites featured more prominently in the election media mix, and have continued to evolve in subsequent contests. Another important development is campaigns’ use of “big data”—large, detailed data sets compiled from voter files, social media analytics, and consumer data—to target voters with specific messages based on their preferences. Big data also are employed by campaigns and opinion organizations to make predictions about voter behavior and election outcomes (Nickerson and Rogers, 2014).

(p. 826) The Importance of New Media in Elections

The new media’s influence on elections has been substantial. Campaigns provide a laboratory for the development of political applications that carry over to postelection politics and establish new norms for media politics in subsequent contests. The social media innovations that rose to prominence in the 2008 presidential contest became standard practice in the 2010 midterm elections and set the stage for the more prolific development of political applications for handheld devices than was the case in 2004, when the Bush campaign used handheld devices to show campaign ads door to door. As technology continues to advance and the number of social media platforms proliferates, the election media environment has become more diversified, specialized, and fragmented. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been joined by a host of platforms, such as Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Vine, that support campaign activities.

Campaign Organizations, Parties, and Grassroots Movements

Candidates have incorporated new media into their organizational strategies for informing, contacting, and mobilizing voters. Candidate websites have come a long way from the days of brochureware and provide users with the opportunity for an individualized experience that can range from simply access biographical information to networking with supporters from across the country. Campaigns have also developed advanced microtargeting methods, including the use of focused text messages to reach specific constituencies, such as ethnic group members and issue constituencies (Hillygus and Shields, 2008; Hendricks and Schill, 2014).

The Democratic and Republican parties have developed digital media strategies for enhancing personal outreach to voters. Their websites have become social media hubs that can engage voters during and after elections. The dominant function of the two major parties’ new media strategy is fundraising, and the “donate” button features prominently on all of their platforms. The parties’ outreach to voters continues between elections, especially through the use of regular email and text messages to supporters, which has revitalized parties’ electoral role.

Grassroots political movements have employed new media as a means of getting their message out and mobilizing supporters. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Tea Party movement used websites, blogs, social media, and email to bring national attention to state and local candidates and to promote its antigovernment taxing and spending message (Lepore, 2010). Mainstream and new media coverage of the Tea Party was substantial and resulted in increased public awareness of and momentum behind little-known candidates (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2010). At the same time, new media strategies can backfire when the mainstream press publicizes unflattering or embarrassing information about candidates. Christine O’Donnell, an unsuccessful Tea Party‒backed candidate for the Senate in Delaware in 2010, received extensive national press coverage for statements about witchcraft she had once made that helped to derail her campaign.

Virtual third-party movements and nonpartisan social media–based platforms for electoral engagement gained traction in the 2012 presidential election. Americans Elect, the most visible and well-financed of these organizations, was unsuccessful in its bid to field a bipartisan presidential ticket through an online nomination process, but managed to get laws passed in more than thirty states that would allow candidates nominated through online processes to get on the ballot, setting the stage for future online presidential candidate recruitment efforts (Owen, 2015).

(p. 827) Campaigns have had to adapt to a more negative and volatile electoral environment. Candidates are subject to constant scrutiny, as their words and actions are closely recorded. Reporters and average citizens can compile information and disseminate it using inexpensive technologies that link easily to networks, where rumors can be spread instantaneously. New media can sustain rumors well after an election. Rumors promulgated by the “birther movement”—that Barack Obama was not qualified to be president because he was not born in the United States—continued to circulate long after he took office.

Media Organizations

The relationship between traditional and new media has gone from adversarial to symbiotic, as new media have become sources of campaign information for professional journalists. Average citizens have become prolific providers of election-related content ranging from short reactions to campaign stories to lengthy firsthand accounts of campaigns events. Mainstream media have integrated new media features into their digital platforms, which have become delivery systems for content that originates from websites, Twitter feeds, blogs, and citizen-produced videos. As a result, messages originating in new media increasingly set the campaign agenda (Pavlik, 2008). Still, established media organizations remain prominent hosts of public election discourse (Gans, 2010).

New media constitute an abundant source of election information for an increasing number of voters. While television remains the main source of election news for a majority of people, online sources are gaining popularity (Smith, 2011). The Internet has gone from a supplementary resource for election information to a main source of news for more than a third of voters during presidential campaigns and a quarter of voters during midterm elections. The use of the Internet as a main source in presidential elections has climbed from 3% in 1996 to 47% in 2012. Mainstream television news exposure and hardcopy print newspaper use has dropped markedly over time. Radio’s popularity as a resource for information on presidential elections has increased slightly since the 1980s and early 1990s, largely due to talk radio’s popularity (Table 56.1).

Table 56.1. Main Sources of Election News

Presidential Elections

Television

Newspaper

Radio

Magazine

Internet

1992

82%

57%

12%

9%

---

1996

72%

60%

19%

11%

3%

2000

70%

39%

15%

4%

11%

2004

76%

46%

22%

1%

21%

2008

68%

33%

16%

3%

36%

2012

67%

27%

20%

3%

47%

Midterm Elections

2002

66%

33%

13%

1%

7%

2006

69%

34%

17%

2%

15%

2010

67%

27%

14%

2%

24%

2014

45%

12%

6%

--

37%

Source: Pew Research Center, November 13, 2008; Pew Internet and American Life Project, March 17, 2011; Pew Research Center, October 25, 2012; Pew Research Center October 21, 2014.

Note: Respondents could volunteer more than one main source. The option changed from “newspaper” to “print” in 2014, and magazines were not included as a source.

The Electorate

The role of the new media in fostering a more active electorate is perhaps their most consequential contribution to campaigns. The low barrier to entry allows more voters from diverse constituencies to participate (Farrar-Myers and Vaughn, 2015). Voters use new media to participate in campaigns in traditional and novel ways, such as producing and distributing campaign content, including news stories, short observations, opinion pieces, audio and video accounts, and independent ads. Citizens can not only access and share information through peer-to-peer networks using email and an ever-increasing array of digital platforms but also engage in structured activities organized digitally by campaign organizations, parties, and interest groups; or they can organize campaign events on their own using social media. (p. 828)

Major Research Questions and Findings

A research tradition begun in the 1992 presidential campaign has addressed both macro-level issues about the importance of new media for democratic participation and also more specific questions about the form, content, role, audiences, and effects of new media in particular campaigns. Since the new media’s influence in elections has been dynamic, research findings should be considered within the context of the phases of new media development. As new media have matured, they have become more integral to the electoral process, and their effects are more pronounced.

Form, Function, and Content of New Election Media

In order to address issues dealing with the form, function, and content of new election media, researchers have asked: What distinguishes new media from traditional media in campaigns? Studies examining the characteristics of new media in elections have provided snapshots of new media developments in specific elections and tracked their evolution over time. Dominant traits that set new media apart from traditional ones are (p. 829) interactivity, network connectivity, and the ability to dynamically engage audience members in elections. New media are also flexible and adaptable, as they can accommodate a wide range of campaign applications. Some, such as fundraising, have offline counterparts, while others, like voter-produced election ads, are unique to the digital realm.

Research on candidate websites provides an illustration of research on the form, function, and content of new election media. Studies have traced the rising sophistication of websites across election cycles and analyzed their changing strategic value in campaigns (Bimber and Davis, 2003; Cornfield, 2004; Davis, 1999; Druckman, Hennessy, Kifer, and Parkin, 2010; Druckman, Kifer, and Parkin, 2007, 2010; Foot and Schneider, 2006; Stromer-Galley, 2000).

Despite the apparent boundary lines of the phases noted earlier, it has become increasingly difficult to draw clear-cut distinctions between traditional and new media. Technology enables the convergence of communication platforms and the formation of hybrid digital media. Convergence refers to the trend of different communication technologies performing similar functions (Jenkins, 2006). Video sharing platforms, like YouTube, have converged with television in elections as they host campaign ads (Burgess and Green, 2009; Pauwels and Hellriegel, 2009). As standard formats take on new media elements, hybrid media have evolved. For example, online versions of print newspapers that originally looked similar to their offline counterparts have come to resemble high-level blogs in style and function. Online newspapers have not only become less formal and more entertainment-focused but now also include mechanisms for interactive engagement and accommodate significant multimedia and user-generated content. Research examining the influence of convergence and hybridity on campaign communication has not kept pace with developments that have important consequences for elections.

Campaign Strategy

Scholars have addressed the ways in which candidates, campaign organizations, and political parties incorporate new media into their strategies. Successful political organizations employ multitiered strategies that integrate traditional and new media tactics. As they take into account the audiences for particular media forms, the strategies of candidates and political parties have become more specialized. A strong majority of senior voters rely primarily on traditional print and electronic sources for campaign data, while younger voters are inclined to consume such information on their smart phones. Digital media have made it possible for campaigns to gather data on voters ranging from their voting history and political leanings to their consumer product preferences. They can also take stock of the electorate’s pulse through a wide range of digital polling tools (Howard, 2005).

The question of how much control candidates have over their campaign messaging in the new media environment has also been raised. Some candidacies are better suited to new media strategies than others (Davis and Owen, 1999). Presidential candidates (p. 830) Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were able to negotiate old and new media comfortably. Others such as George H. W. Bush in 1992 and John McCain in 2008, had greater difficulty adapting to the less formal, more relational style of new media. Candidates’ increasing use of social media has influenced media coverage of campaigns but has had less of an influence on the public’s attention to and perceptions of candidates (Hong and Nadler, 2012; Solo, 2014).

The growth in the number of actors who can actively participate in the media campaign in the new media era has created challenges for candidates seeking to control their message. Political organizations such as 527 groups, which are not subject to campaign contribution and spending limits, can run campaign ads and mobilize voters online as long as they do not coordinate with a candidate’s campaign committee. The ads they disseminate can complicate messaging strategies even for candidates they are meant to help.

New Media Audiences

Another body of research focuses on the audiences for new media in elections. Here the most basic question is: Who makes up the audiences for new election media? The answer has changed as Internet penetration has become more widespread and people adopt new forms of digital technology. Early political Internet users were younger, male, and educated. However, as the audiences for new election media have expanded exponentially, they increasingly resemble the general population (Zickuhr, 2010).

Fifty-five percent of voters in the 2010 midterm contests used Internet media for some election-relevant purpose (Smith, 2011); increasing to sixty-six percent in 2014 (Pew Research Center, 2015). Still, younger and more educated people are the most inclined to use the most pioneering platforms. Enthusiasm over new media developments in campaigns can at times overshadow the reality that the audiences for all but a few political media sites are generally small (Hindman, 2009) and use of the most innovative campaign applications can be slight (Owen 2011a,b).

Related research examines the extent to which new outlets supplement or supplant mainstream media for voters. The dynamics underlying audience media use differ for presidential and midterm elections. Voters are gravitating from traditional television and print sources and moving to the Internet for presidential campaign news (Owen and Davis, 2008). Rather than abandoning traditional sources entirely, many people are adding Internet media as a new source of information during midterm elections (Smith, 2011). Local television news, in particular, remains important for midterm election voters (Owen, 2011b). Young people, however, are inclined to use online sources to the exclusion of television and print newspapers in both types of campaigns.

Audience use of campaign media is a research focus that raises a key question: What motivates voters to use new election media? Attempts to address this issue have employed uses and gratifications frameworks to examine the motivations underpinning voters’ media use. Many of these studies rely heavily on lists of media motivations and uses that were developed in the pre‒new media era (see Blumler, 1979; Owen, 1991). Studies adopting these frameworks reveal that voters use new campaign media for guidance, surveillance/information seeking, entertainment, and social utility (Kaye and Johnson, 2002) as well as to reinforce their voting decisions (Mutz and Martin, 2001).

These standard uses and gratifications have been supplemented by campaign media motivations and uses that take into account digital media’s interactivity, networkability, (p. 831) collaborative possibilities, ability to foster engagement (Ruggiero, 2000), and convenience. New media use involves experiences that are more active and goal-directed than those associated with traditional media. These include problem solving, persuading others, relationship maintenance, status seeking, personal insight, and time consumption. Scholars have also identified uses and gratifications that are linked to specific aspects of new election media use (Johnson and Kaye, 2008). Gratifications are derived from participating in virtual communities, as by establishing a peer identity (LaRose and Eastin, 2004). The use of social media fulfills needs including enhancing social connectedness, self-expression, sharing problems, sociability, relationship maintenance, and self-actualization (Quan-Haase and Young, 2010; Shao, 2009). Social media also provide a venue for “political mavericks” to express themselves in new ways (Hendricks and Schill, 2014).

New Media Effects in Elections

Researchers have also investigated the relationship between voters’ use of new media and their levels of political attentiveness, knowledge, attitudes, orientations, and engagement. Early studies of the effects of new media on voters’ acquisition of campaign knowledge produced mixed results, while newer research reveals more consistent evidence of information gain (Bimber, 2001; Drew and Weaver, 2006; Norris, 2000; Prior, 2005; Weaver and Drew, 2001; Wei and Lo, 2008; Semiatin, 2013; Hendricks and Schill, 2014; Denton, 2014). Scholars have also examined the influence of the use of new election media on the development of political attitudes and orientations, such as efficacy and trust (Johnson, Braima, and Sothirajah, 1999; Kenski and Stroud, 2006, Wang, 2007; Zhang, Johnson, Seltzer, and Bichard, 2010).

Some studies have found a positive connection between exposure to online media and higher levels of electoral engagement and turnout (Gueorguieva, 2008; Gulati and Williams, 2010; Johnson and Kaye, 2003; Tolbert and Mcneal, 2003; Wang, 2007; Bond et al., 2012). However, the effects may not be overwhelming (Boulianne, 2009). The online environment may be most relevant for people who are already predisposed toward political engagement (Park and Perry, 2008, 2009). The use of social media does not necessarily increase electoral participation, although it has a positive influence on civic engagement, such as community volunteerism (Baumgartner and Morris, 2010; Zhang, Johnson, Seltzer, and Bichard, 2010).

Young Voters

Young voters, those under age 30, came of political age during the Internet era. Unlike older citizens, who established their campaign media habits in the print and television age, this generation has embraced the election online from the outset. A growing body of literature focuses on the ways in which young voters are using new election media and their effects. Studies indicate that this demographic group is out front in terms of using new media for accessing information (Lupia and Philpot, 2005; Shah, McLeod, and Yoon, 2001); indeed, many ignore traditional print and broadcast media and rely (p. 832) exclusively on digital sources (Owen, 2011b). Young people are also at the forefront of new election media innovation and participation (Owen, 2008‒2009; Baumgartner and Morris, 2010; Gainous and Wagner, 2014). However, young voters’ domination of the digital campaign has been dissipating over time, as the “Internet generation” ages and older citizens gain facility with communication technologies.

Unanswered Questions and New Directions

Research to date has established useful baselines for understanding new media and elections. However, many of the questions that guided early work remain contested or only partially addressed. Much of the existing scholarship has employed well-worn theoretical frameworks that are not entirely appropriate for the new media age and have relied on orthodox methodological approaches, such as survey research and content analysis. In order to track new developments and voters’ use of campaign media innovations, theories explaining the new media’s role in elections should be refined or recast. Creative research methodologies such as the use of time gliders to catalogue the emergence and development of new campaign media should be employed, as well as network analysis that captures the dynamics of social media engagement. Political scientists and communication researchers should collaborate with computer science and technology scholars.

Going forward, scholars should critically and creatively address the basic question: How can new media’s influence in elections be identified, measured, assessed, and explained in the current environment? Since the new media environment is changeable, and tracking developments is difficult, this is a challenging proposition. New media applications are introduced and modified, and they sometimes disappear quickly. Audiences’ new media tastes shift, and their engagement with particular platforms can be mercurial. Candidates, parties, media organizations, and average citizens experiment with new media and introduce new scenarios in virtually every campaign.

Theoretical frameworks should be tested for their capacity to accommodate the unique characteristics of new media, with their inherent multipath interactivity, flexibility, unpredictability, and opportunities for more active engagement. Theories should elucidate the challenges new media present to entrenched media and political hierarchies. They also should address the manner in which new media are influencing campaign logistics and strategies. To address the effects of complex audience dynamics, scholars need to develop analytical categories beyond demographics and basic political orientations. Much excitement has been generated by the prospect of using new media for electoral engagement, but the substance and significance of these forms of activation are barely understood. Studies might more deeply assess whether or not this engagement constitutes meaningful and effective political activation.

Standard methodological approaches should be updated for the new media age or used in conjunction with cutting edge methods. Some of the very same tools that are employed by users of digital media can be used by scholars to collect and analyze data. Electronic sources—such as blogs, discussion forums, and email—can function as archives of material that can be automatically searched, retrieved, extracted, and examined using digital (p. 833) tools. Big data can be employed to examine voter orientations and preferences, with the caveat that their objectivity, reliability, and accuracy are suspect. Research strategies might blend big data analysis and traditional survey research (Metaxas and Mustafaraj, 2012; Groves, 2013). Audience analysis also can benefit from fresh methodological approaches. People do not consume news online in the same linear fashion that they read the morning newspaper. Instead, they explore news offerings by following a series of links to particular content. Web crawler techniques can be used to examine online election communities. Digital utilities, such as online timeline creators, visually chart the development of new election media and serve as research tools (Owen, 2011a). Journals that can handle digital scholarship using multimedia graphics, and interactive exhibits are being developed.

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