With voting season right around the corner, candidates on both sides of the aisle are gearing up for their upcoming campaigns. While voters will always be influenced by ideologies and rhetoric, the mediums through which these ideas are presented go a long way toward informing voter decisions.
Take, for example, the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon; the first televised presidential debate in American history. Neither candidate had a clear lead over the other going into the debate and both presented well spoken and strikingly similar agendas promoting national security, denouncing Communism, and calling for the continued growth of America’s global influence. In fact, Nixon and Kennedy’s stances and well practiced responses were so similarly executed, that most radio listeners considered the debate to be draw. Television viewers, on the other hand, came to a different conclusion.
Of the millions of American who watched the debate on television, an overwhelming majority declared Kennedy the victor. How was it that a single year senator who many considered boyish and naive could be seen to have bested a seasoned law-maker with 8 years of vice-presidential experience?
Most historians and political scientist believe these contrasting views had more to do with utilization of the new media than quality of content. While Nixon appeared, on paper, to be the more qualified of the two candidates, Kennedy appeared more appealing on the T.V. screen. A long-running and largely outdoor campaign had left Kennedy with a healthy, bronzed complexion. Nixon, on the other hand, was just coming off of a two-week bout of the flu and looked pale, gaunt and tired. Kennedy made eye contact with the cameras as he responded to the pundits’ questions, seeming to address the American people directly. Nixon stared at the individual corespondents as he spoke, which gave him the appearance of averting his gaze.
In short, Kennedy simply ‘played to the camera’ better than Nixon, and in doing so made better use of the new media. Many historians believe this debate to be the turning point in the presidential race. The debates gave Kennedy the momentum he needed to cement his victory over Nixon and secure the Presidency. All thanks to a willingness to embrace and utilize new communication channels.
This practice of embracing new media has seen a resurgence with the birth of the internet and the proliferation of social media. Barack Obama relied heavily on social media and digital campaigns during the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. Through the use of Facebook, Twitter, and his own political website (barackobama.com), Obama was able to capitalize on the millions of Americans that use the web on a regular basis. So all-encompassing was Obama’s use of digital media to engage with voters that several books, including John Hendrick’s ‘Communicator-in-Chief’ have been published on the subject.
Another politician that exemplifies the effective use of social and digital media to connect with the public is Cory Booker, United States Senator from New Jersey. Booker maintains very active social media accounts including Facebook (which is updated multiple times a day) and Twitter (where he has nearly 1.5 million followers) as well as a robust and elegantly designed political website (corybooker.com). By maintaining such a high digital presence, Booker is able to reach out to his constituents, not just once every couple years when elections roll around, but on a consistent, real-time basis.
By embracing and employing the tactics and strategies of digital media, politicians like President Obama and Cory Booker are able to connect and communicate with his audience in way that mirrored JFK’s masterful use of television broadcast. As the 2008 and 2012 elections have shown, the utilization of new digital media is likely to become the cornerstone of all future political campaigns. Above and beyond acting as a conduit for political and ideological message delivery, an established and properly utilized digital presence provides a political candidate the opportunity to connect with their audience in a way that presents them as ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘in-tune’ with the changing media landscape.
From political website design to social media management to search engine optimization, the new tools of politics are becoming more and more kinetic and less and less tangible. Facebook posts are the new campaign pins, tweets are the new handshakes, and political websites are the new billboards. From Washington D.C. to Main St., Anywhere, the new course of political discourse is clear; and its name is new media.
To paraphrase the theories of Charles Darwin, politicians can either adapt to this changing environment, or find themselves outmoded by those who do.
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