Television ads, town hall meetings, debates – been there, done that. The new battleground for many 2016 presidential candidates isn’t the real world or old media – it’s Instagram.
In recent days, both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican front-runner Donald Trump have been using the photo- and video-sharing social media platform to needle each other, the latest front in their political war. But that negativity is actually the exception to the Instagram rule. Most candidates are using the platform to post friendly content and give voters a peek into their lives off the campaign trail.
Take, for example, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who frequently posts throwback photos of her and her family – a picture of her looking lovingly at a young Chelsea, who rides a pony; an old high-school yearbook picture; or her and husband Bill Clinton lounging around in short shorts on a summer day in 1975. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is seen playing bumper cars, smiling with his supporters, or solemnly looking at a memorial paying tribute to the five serviceman killed in the July attack in Chattanooga, Tennessee. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s page is filled with images of him posing with potential voters, grilling at the Iowa State fair and kissing his son on the forehead on his birthday.
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But for Bush and Trump on Instagram, the gloves have come off.
“As far as the Republican field is concerned, Donald Trump is setting the tune that everyone else has to dance to,” said Robert Thompson, a media expert at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. And if that means Trump goes negative on Instagram – which boasts more than 300 million users, the bulk of whom are under the age of 35 – other candidates may feel compelled to do the same, said Thompson.Indeed, Trump kicked off the Instagram attack a little over week ago when he posted a 15-second video titled “Barbara Bush’s advice to her son” with the now infamous clip of the former first lady saying there have been enough Bushes in the White House. It ends with the words, “Mother knows best, Jeb!” splayed across the screen. Another video, called “Jeb Bush’s thoughts on illegal immigrants,” attacks the former Florida governor for previously saying undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. as an “act of love.” Meanwhile, mug shots of undocumented immigrants who committed crimes in America are flashed across the screen, along with the tagline, “Love? Forget love, it’s time to get tough!”
Another video on Trump’s Instagram, titled “Jeb Bush honoring Hillary Clinton,” showed Bush speaking about Clinton, who was being awarded the 2013 Liberty Medal, followed by an interview with former President George W. Bush being asked what Clinton is to the Bush family. George W. Bush laughs and replies, “my sister-in-law.”
Bush clearly had enough this week. In stark contrast to the photos of him on Instagram smiling and shaking hands with voters, holding two giant lobsters in the early voting state of New Hampshire and pictures of the latest Jeb 2016 merchandise was Bush trying to criticize the real estate mogul for previously supporting Democrats and left-leaning policies. In one photo: a copy of a the front page of The New York Times showing Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi being sworn in as House speaker in 2007, with a scribbled note from Trump saying “Nancy you are the greatest! Good luck!”
“Who’s the real Donald Trump?” Bush wrote in the image’s caption.
In another video posted to Bush’s Instagram account this week, a past interview with Trump is played in which the former reality TV host is asked why he is a Republican, to which Trump replies: “I have no idea.” In the caption, Bush writes, “Why are you a Republican Donald Trump…The answer is, you’re not.”
In many ways, the candidates’ use of Instagram makes a lot of sense, especially for Trump, who has 377,000 followers (which trumps Bush’s 32,000). There’s the money factor, too. “It’s relatively low cost to put together a quick little video snippet,” said Stephen Smith, the digital director at Purple Strategies, a political consulting firm. Smith noted, however, that the candidates have greater following and targeted reach on other platforms like Facebook and Twitter – platforms that Bush and Trump have also used to criticize each other.
The 2016 social media craze doesn’t stop there. Democrat Bernie Sander’s campaign has launched an emoji app–aptly titled “Berniemoji.” Similarly, Team Clinton has begun a new marketing campaign geared toward women in which supporters can get a pink pantsuit Bitmoji to put on their own avatar. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas frequently turns to Periscope – a live video app – to broadcast his events, while, as Politico noted, Sen. Marco Rubio uses “Snapchat stories” on the campaign trail.
Social media expert Shel Holtz anticipated we’ll see more Periscoping and Snapchatting this election cycle. “It’s another way to bypass the filter of the media and go right to your constituency.” There are, of course, potential hurdles with the notion that anything you say can be broadcast live anywhere.
“There’s always the possibility of people using their phones to record audio that’s supposed to be private,” said Holtz. We all remember the secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney telling GOP donors last election cycle that 47% Americans who pay no income tax see themselves as “victims.” And we know how that turned out.