How social media will influence this campaign
© Greg Nash

A recent series of polls shows that the race for the Millennial vote between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison Monica Lewinsky signs production deal with 20th TV Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide MORE is tightening. Clinton leads Trump by just five percent nationally, down from a gap of 24 percent in August. 

As the campaign nears its end, what could the Clinton campaign do over the next seven weeks to re-energize Millennial support? On the flip side, what could the Trump campaign do to continue closing, if not completely eliminate, this gap?

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The answer lies in social media. It’s the place where younger voters get their start politically. Social media makes it easier for candidates, parties, and political groups to invite college students to participate in elections, both on and off-line.

In researching our book, Web 2.0 and the Political Mobilization of College Students, we found that simple actions like “friending” a candidate or joining a group on Facebook or on Twitter leads to higher levels of participation. A college student who friends candidates or joins groups online engages in one to two additional civic activities away from the internet. These activities would otherwise not have taken place if this student had not friended candidates or joined groups online at all.

This means a college student who “friends” candidates or follows them on Facebook is more likely to participate in other civic activities on social media. This person is more likely to blog about politics, and follow candidates on Twitter.  And, if this student blogs about politics, then they are more likely to tweet about that subject, too.

In 2008, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: Fox News viewers 'perceive a different reality' than other Americans Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide Ending the same-sex marriage wars MORE’s campaign recruited college students through social media to campaign on his behalf. Thousands of students became a key part of his campaign’s door to door efforts. His efforts were also successful in 2012, helping him to capture 60 percent of the under-30 vote nationally, compared with just 37 percent for Mitt Romney.

As the Obama Presidency draws to a close, other candidates are learning how to mobilize college students as a powerful political force. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders won't vote for bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Politics of discontent: Who will move to the center and win back Americans' trust? MORE capitalized on this in 2016 by crafting part of his platform around issues like free college that uniquely affect college students and recent college graduates. He held events at many college campuses around the country (including the one at which we work) and attracted crowds that included thousands of students.

The number of social media platforms and the opportunities they offer to participate in politics have increased dramatically in the last eight years. Candidates are using a variety of social media platforms to reach out to voters, gain their support, and ask for their help.

And, the evidence indicates that it works, especially for mobilizing young voters like college students. In late July, the Donald Trump Campaign posted a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) to get younger voters interested. And, the Hillary Clinton campaign has an app that gives users daily tasks that will help her get elected, a useful guide for pro-Clinton Millennials.

Recently, Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaJill Biden, Kate Middleton to meet this week Jill Biden to focus on military families on foreign trip Book claims Trump believed Democrats would replace Biden with Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama in 2020 election MORE offered a telling statistic at a campaign rally for Clinton at George Mason University. “In 2012,” the first lady said, “Voters under the age of 30 provided the margin of victory for Barack in four key battleground states.”

She is right. The Millennial vote could tip the balance in key states. But it will not happen automatically. Campaigns have to purposefully reach out and engage them.  Our advice to the Trump and Clinton campaigns is this: if you want to reach college students and young voters, up your social media game.

Kenneth W. Moffett and Laurie L. Rice are associate professors of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and members of the Scholars Strategy Network. Together, they have written a book entitled Web 2.0 and the Political Mobilization of College Students.


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