The magnitude of technological change over the past four years has been incredible; the next four will surely be more so. Our mobiles are powering, disrupting, and enhancing our lives more than ever, and in one of the most turbulent election periods of recent history, we’re witnessing the effect of mobile tech in shaping the 2016 US presidential election.

2008 – 2012: A new (mobile) frontier

While the 2008 election marked the first ‘social media President’ (Obama successfully connected to new voters over Facebook and Twitter feeds), 2012 marked the beginning of a ‘big data’ election: messaging was created on a state-by-state basis, using polling and government data to uncover and relate to core voter priorities. Where Republican candidate Mitt Romney targeted voters by placing ads along specific bus routes, Obama used digital and social media to strategically engage specific audiences with messaging that varied from state to state.

Knowing their core voter block of 18-29s weren’t reachable by landline, Obama’s campaign staff developed an app to a) raise donations (of which they did about $690m US) and b) collect audience data (that tracked about 85% of their 1m digital sign-ups).

Obama’s victory photo quickly became the most shared Twitter and Facebook post of all time.

Fun fact: a team of just 4 people ran Obama’s social media accounts throughout the 2012 election.

2016: The mobile election

In 2016, nearly twice as many Americans have smartphones than the last election, and the reliance on data in political strategy is making the most of it. A study in January this year found that 44% of U.S adults learned about the election from social media – considerably more than from newspapers. In July, more Americans turned to candidate’s social media feeds for news (24%) than their websites and emails (15%). 35% of registered voters said that digital media will be their most important source of political news this election, and 25% reported seeing a political ad on Facebook. Interestingly, minority voters visit political sites on mobile devices 10% more than overall voters.

App the vote

Steph Hannon, Chief Technology Officer at Hillary for America, outlined the mobile-first strategy in a piece for Forbes. HFA bolstered support by prioritising mobile over other mediums with a few simple moves:

  • Creating an app using game mechanics (quizzes, activities, and rewards) to give supporters a reason to increase commitment throughout the campaign.
  • Using text messages to engage voters and drum up support/make announcements (the announcement for Tim Kaine as VP was announced via SMS)
  • Creating portal for volunteers to canvass voters – identifying potential voter precincts for door knocking faster than on paper.
  • Going ‘mobile friendly’ on all content – making each page readable on small screens, using standard fonts, and breaking up text with visually appealing graphics and images.

Real-time polling

So, with the volume of communication occurring on a minute-by-minute basis, the ability to measure sentiment in real time allows campaign managers to adjust their strategy accordingly. We think of popularity and polls in door-knocking and phone call data collection, but mobiles can give us a view in real time of where candidates stand amongst voters.

For example, a Stanford University analysis of the first presidential debate featured a fascinating look at audience sentiment played out across the country (labeled in emoji for maximum millennial understanding).  😎

Hillary Clinton social sentiment throughout debate one. Source: Stanford University

Hillary Clinton social sentiment throughout debate one. Source: Stanford University

Donald Trump social sentiment throughout debate one. Source: Stanford University

Donald Trump social sentiment throughout debate one. Source: Stanford University

If you’re after something a little more substantial, the official US Government Twitter account took a more statistical breakdown of the Twitter conversation as it happened (click through for the entire thread).

And, of course, relentless onslaught courtesy of Twitter’s comic elite:

Jabs aside, the data from these conversations was used by candidates to directly track sentiment city-by-city, and alter messaging in real time. Big data algorithms and programmatic buying targets voters based on social sentiment and GPS data – so an angry voter in a state with low employment could be engaged directly with a plan to create more jobs and a concerned voter with environmental fears could be served a direct action plan to cut emissions. And on the day of the vote, location data can be used to track those who may not have voted yet (and point them in the right direction) or engage voters to convince their network to do the same.

Facebook Likes aren’t votes

The difficulty with social media is that its audience is disproportionate: 58% of the US population is on the platform, but this group is still skewed too young to be a fair representation. So additional digital records are used – web browsing, tax records, app downloads, government data – to inform the messages and ads you receive from each party. Companies like DSPolitical have run tens of millions of dollars worth of mobile ads based on location, using social data as a primary input.

A varied approach

Interestingly is how each candidate used social media platforms to collect this sentiment. A study from the Wall St. Journal found that where Clinton has tweeted over 9,600 times since 2013, Trump has over 33,000 since 2009 (15 of which end in the phrase ‘SAD!’). Over 90% of Trump’s tweets were from mobile, where 76% of Clinton’s were from desktop – suggesting Clinton’s presence to be a little more strategic as Trump’s is ‘off the cuff’.

A 2011 study from Dublin City University found that tweet volume was ‘the single biggest predictive variable’ in election results – but again, a lot has changed in five years (and as Trump may have found, more tweets does not necessarily mean good tweets.)

You can view Twitter sentiment for every candidate throughout the campaign using this interactive tool.

2020: What’s next for elections?

Considering Kanye West may be running for president, everything’s on the table. Whomever the candidate, mobile tech will play an ever larger part in shaping the democratic experience. We’re likely to see even more personalised advertising from candidates – think Mitt Romney’s bus route concept, but specific to your industry, lifestyle, or location as it affects you most (and in real time). As social media audiences widen to include older voters, a stronger reliance on how you use your phone will change how nominees try to reach you. And with the advent of 5G and artificial intelligence, the medium by which this messaging reaches you may drastically change.

And don’t think Australia is immune to this hyper-targeted political advertising. By the time our next federal election rolls around, you can expect our political parties to model strategies from the winning party, targeted directly to your wants and needs to get that all important vote.

That next selfie of yours could change the course of history. Make it count!

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Camilla Gulli


Camilla Gulli,

As Editor at Red Wire, Camilla is particularly passionate about diversity in tech, content marketing, social media, and disruptive platforms.