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Emerson Faculty on Social Media, Marketing, and Polling in the Race for POTUS

Social media platforms have revolutionized political campaigns. They’ve changed how candidates market themselves, communicate to voters, and ultimately, poll.

Four years ago, Trump would often communicate via Twitter, now called X, but he was eventually suspended from the platform, and started his own social platform, Truth Social. His campaign continues to use X, thought not much.

Vincent Raynauld head shot
Vincent Raynauld

“The candidates seem to be gravitating towards the main social media: X, Facebook, Instagram,” said Vincent Raynauld, Associate Professor of Communication Studies. “[Trump’s campaign] is not using X that much. He’s been using Facebook and Instagram quite a bit.”

Trump’s campaign’s style is very different compared to those of President Joe Biden and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

“You get a sense that the Biden campaign and the Haley campaign have a more professional approach, which can sometimes be seen as elitist, and undermine authenticity,” said Raynauld. “In an era when populism is quite appealing to the public, and people are pushing back against institutions and the elite, Trump’s style is embracing the people’s first approach.”

Raynauld said that’s why Trump connects well on social media, and you see it with his Truth Social posts.

“You get [that] it’s him and coming straight from the candidate. If you read a Joe Biden tweet, you can see it’s coming from a team of staff members,” said Raynauld. “On traditional media, it’s less problematic. Social media is rawer.”

Raynauld said Biden has shown glimpses of authenticity, by pushing back against Trump, for example trolling former First Lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign. Biden responded “Be Best” in response to a CNN report that Biden’s campaign has been getting under Trump’s skin. That kind of playfulness is what people respond to on social media.

“Trolling has become such a part of a campaign. Trump uses viral content, things floating around on the internet, and repurposes it for the campaign,” said Raynauld. “Everyone does it. It’s like sharing a meme with a friend.”

Raynauld said campaigns also need to engage with social media influencers, something that wasn’t a concern in past presidential cycles. Raynauld said that in many ways, one of the biggest influencers is Taylor Swift, who endorsed Biden in 2020. Her influence has grown even greater since then, and she has 92 million followers on X, 281 million followers on Instagram, and 24 million followers on TikTok.

“She can mobilize the public. That is scaring the Republicans,” said Raynauld.

Social media is more vital to political campaigns than ever before, and not just X or Insta. Raynauld says he asks his students about their morning media diet.

“TikTok has become the main source of information for young audiences. They reach for their phone and scour social media when they wake up,” said Raynauld. “Social media has become a primary way for some people to attain information.”

Raynauld pointed to a recent Pew Research Center survey that says in just three years, the share of U.S. adults who regularly get their news from TikTok has more than quadrupled, going from 3 percent in 2020 to 14 percent in 2023.

“It’s less about which platform is going to be the silver bullet. It’s about figuring out your target audience and which platforms and message can they use to really get to their audience,” said Raynauld.

Let’s Talk Strategy

Communication Studies affiliated faculty member Kathryn Grosso Gann ’05 was the deputy press secretary for former Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie when he was governor of New Jersey. She was also previously the War Room director for the Republican National Committee, and prior to that, she worked on former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s presidential campaign.

Kathryn Grosso Gann
Kathryn Grosso Gann

What advice would she give to the candidates?

“Start with Donald Trump. I don’t know if there’s any piece of advice he’d listen to,” Gann said.

“If you’re Nikki Haley, she has a role to play. She’s trying her best to be a direct alternative to Trump,” she continued. “She’s speaking to her experience to registered Republicans and moderate voters who register as Independent voters, who can vote in GOP elections like in New Hampshire. You can’t be Trump Lite. It wouldn’t be enough.”

Gann said Biden needs to distinguish himself like he did 2020 as the only adult in the room, and bring back America’s standing in the world. But she said Democrats and the Democratic Party take the discontent of voters too lightly, something that Trump and Republicans tap into.

Haley is not far off from Trump in terms of delegates, but some state Republican primaries are winner-take-all.

“She is trying to be a spoiler so when we get to a convention, there’s an opportunity for her,” said Gann. “She has to sustain that from fundraising. She has had an infusion of cash. Without any primary wins officially, [thanks to the cash infusion] she can still afford to try to win.”

As for undecided voters, while there is space to talk about broad social issues, Gann said candidates need to talk about things that matter to people.

“It’s about trying to feed your kids, and whether you have money to pay a grocery bill, or if you can afford to fix the broken dishwasher,” said Gann. “No one is talking about the housing crisis in a broad sense. The economy is doing better. Biden needs to highlight those things.”

Gann said Trump tapped into that in 2016. He didn’t do it in a traditional way, or a way that was acceptable or common practice, but it worked.

“In a way, he is an effective communicator in that regard,” said Gann.

Biden’s Age and Trump’s Criminal Indictments

A new Emerson Polling poll released on February 16 showed it’s a very tight race, with 45 percent of voters favoring Trump, and 44 percent of voters preferring Biden – and 11 percent were undecided. According to the poll, neither candidate is on the upswing as support for both candidates decreased by one point since a similar poll in January.

Spencer Kimball headshot
Spencer Kimball

“There is a stark divide in 2024 support among voters with and without a college degree. Voters without a college degree break for Trump 48 percent to 39 percent, whereas voters with a college degree break for Biden 52 percent to 39 percent,” said Spencer Kimball, Executive Director of Emerson College Polling.

Emerson Polling asked about two hot button topics: Biden’s age and Trump’s criminal indictments:

  • 58 percent say Biden’s age raises serious doubts in their minds about voting for the president, and 42 percent say it is not a serious consideration of theirs
  • 57 percent say Trump’s criminal indictments raise serious doubts in the mind about voting for Trump and 43 percent say it is not a serious consideration of theirs.
  • Among Independent voters, 54 percent say Biden’s age raises serious doubts for them, while 61 percent say Trump’s criminal indictment raises serious doubts. 
  • Within the candidates’ own parties, 45 percent of Democrats say Biden’s age raises doubts, while 30 percent of Republicans say the same of Trump’s indictments.

“While the President’s approval has remained the same since last month, it has decreased a few points among Independent voters, from 37 percent to 34 percent, reflecting a drop in a number that was trending upward for the president since November 2023,” said Kimball.

Emerson Polling also asked about the top issues for voters, and the economy tops the ticket at 30 percent, followed by immigration at 21 percent, threats to democracy at 14 percent, education at 6 percent, crime at 6 percent, and abortion access at 5 percent.

“Male voters are most concerned about immigration at 28 percent, compared to 15 percent of women, whereas women voters are most concerned about the economy at 35 percent compared to 26 percent of men,” said Kimball.

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