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Is Nothing Sacred? Why Political Candidates Are Commandeering Hip New Media

On the occasion of Hillary Clinton's interview with Lena Dunham, we ask a political scientist why politicians are ruining all the cool platforms, podcasts, magazines, and TinyLetters.
Lena Dunham interviews her favorite Democratic candidate. (Photo: Lenny)

Lena Dunham interviews her favorite Democratic candidate. (Photo: Lenny)

Lena Dunham's announcement in July that she would be producing a daily newsletter, called Lenny, shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Dunham is, after all, "a voice" of the younger generation, a bona fide tastemaker. And personal newsletters are on the rise, and for good reason: Like podcasts, they foster a minimally mediated sense of intimacy with the writer/aggregator; like Twitter, they offer a peek into a person's idiosyncratic tastes as a reader; and, like a favorite blog, the selections of the day's readings arrive with annotations—quippy one-liners that explain why a story bears mentioning. There's something precious and intimate and pure about the form, which is why so many recipients remain steadfast in their support for the personal newsletter.

But, like seemingly all forms of new media, the personal newsletter format finds itself suddenly in the mainstream: In today's edition, Dunham interviews presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. This is, of course, nothing new. Over the past few years, politicians have become increasingly savvy about targeting young people where their ears and eyeballs are. In 2015, it's a matter of necessity for politicians to operate active Facebook pages and Twitter handles. But now they're also going on Marc Maron's pocast, giving interviews to Grantland, and posting Vines. No lawmaker, it seems, is exempt. And none of our once-precious new media platforms are sacred.

To understand how this political conquest of new media came about, we turned to Paul Brewer, a professor and director of the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication. Brewer explained to us why politicians are so eager to talk to entertainment types like Lena Dunham—and why political hold-outs are likely to end up the losers.


Everywhere I look, politicians are co-opting the social media platforms I'm using and the publications I'm reading. Is this a new normal for political campaigns, and will my social media ever be safe from campaign messaging again?

I think it's a new normal. Politicians are still trying to figure out how to use social media and these other new media forms to try to communicate with voters, and the jury is still out on how effective politicians are when they try to use them. But this is really only the latest manifestation of something that's been going on for decades, which is that politicians go where they can reach the voters. For example, Hillary Clinton does this interview with Lena Dunham. What does it cost Hillary Clinton to do it? Nothing, basically. A little bit of travel expenses and social media work. And she gets all this free publicity out of it. She doesn't get tough questions, but she does get a chance to show that she's a down-to-Earth and likable person.

Paul Brewer. (Photo: University of Delaware)

Paul Brewer. (Photo: University of Delaware)

Politicians like these opportunities. If you look at sound bytes on the evening news, they're what, 10 seconds long on average, maybe less? That's not a lot of time for politicians to get their message out there. So even if it isn't about policy platforms, they still get a message out there: "Hey, I'm a likable person. I get what the young people are all about these days." They have every motivation to do podcast interviews, or do an AMA on Reddit, or start their own Twitter page.

How effective is this tactic? Sometimes it seems a little forced when politicians take to these new platforms and try to adopt the voice that's native to it.

One way that it can backfire—and I don't know if this could seriously hurt politicians, but it could be embarrassing—is when they try to use a new medium and, in doing so, they show they really don't know the rules or the norms of the medium. Like when [in 2010] Obama was talking about "Twitters." There's a small risk where you could sound like you're really uncool. I also don't think it's going to make a Democrat vote for a Republican—just because a candidate goes on some podcast first, it's not going to change people's fundamental political views.

But for voters who aren't paying that much attention, these little bits of communication are a chance to change people's impressions of a candidate's overall personality traits, which can be important to voters. Now, there are other uses for it too. Donald Trump, I think, is the first real Twitter candidate. He loves to start Twitter wars over just about everything.

Is there an outlet that's particularly soft on politicians? One where they really seem to be able to convey their message unchallenged?

Any entertainment-oriented outlet is going to be softer most of the time. There are exceptions: I remember—and this is more of an old-school media example—when Mitt Romney went on Jay Leno's show, and Leno starts going after him about pre-existing medical conditions and health insurance. That's not the kind of question that you usually get from these entertainment outlets. I haven't seen the clips of the Dunham/Clinton one, but I can't imagine Dunham is going after her in any press kind of fashion.

From my initial impressions of the released clips, it seems that she's kind of fangirling.

That's very typical; and that's the big appeal to politicians. It's that they get to go on these platforms and have fun conversations that tend to make them look good. There's a hidden benefit to it as well. How did you find out about the Clinton interview, for instance?

I was on Twitter!

Right, so if you do [new media spots], it gets picked up by other outlets. It gets picked up by Twitter, it gets posted on Facebook, it gets covered by traditional media: It generates this whole second wave of exposure—and that coverage also may be pretty light on you, the politician, too.

Is there a gold standard in terms of a politician who's doing new media best?

It's a pretty short history, but in that short history, the Obama campaign stands out. They put a lot of time and energy into new media both as a messaging tool and also as a mobilization tool. They had a very complex and heavily funded election night system that involved social media, for instance. One of my favorite examples is from back in 2008. Candidates have always bought billboard time. In 2008, the Obama campaign bought billboard time in computer games, so that when you're driving down the road in the game, you see the Obama billboard.

They were also using the tools that were only just becoming popular at the time. It's hard to believe that Facebook was a relatively new thing in the first Obama campaign, and they were way ahead of the McCain campaign in terms of using Facebook.

I don't think campaigns are really at the cutting edge of technology in society. They're always a little bit behind. But the Obama campaign was pretty good at keeping up with things fairly close to real time. Whereas the McCain campaign's like, "Oh, we have a MySpace page!"

Is it essential that a politician embrace these new media platforms?

I think it's close to obligatory. I've seen research that suggests that candidates who are active on the big platforms, like Twitter, do better than candidates who don't. That's a chicken-or-the-egg [issue], however, because well-funded, well-run campaigns are also more likely to be doing this in the first place because they'll have the staff to do it. On the other hand, social media provides challengers with one way to campaign cheaply. Say a candidate can't spend tens of millions of dollars on campaign ads—at least they have a way to get their message out somehow.

I wouldn't expect to see too many of these Luddite campaigns going forward. At the beginning of a medium, there will always be some. This could be an urban legend, but one story goes that at the beginning of television, Thomas Dewey was in discussions with Madison Avenue types who were pro-Dewey and telling him, "Hey we can make a bunch of TV ads for you," in the early days of TV. He was like, "Nah, it's too much like candidates selling soap." And then when Eisenhower ran as a Republican four years later, Dewey said, "Hey, these Madison Avenue people—you might want to listen to what they have to say."

What platforms have the biggest future for political campaigning?

The biggest one right now seems to be Twitter, because of the potential to get lots of messages out there quickly. That said, Twitter and Facebook are both trickier in that you don't control the message very well. It's not just what you say and what you do, but what other people say about you. We did a study where we found that what candidates said about themselves on their Facebook page mattered less than what random commenters said about them in terms of voters' perceptions of the candidate.

In terms of what's coming next, it's really hard to say. It's changing so fast. What's big in 2020 won't be what it is now.

If you could give one piece of advice to a political who wanted to speak to a younger, more plugged-in generation on new media and do it right, what would it be?

I would suggest that the big opportunity here is to use these new outlets to shape what people who don't pay attention to politics think about you, not just as a politician but as a person. Voters care about just ideology and key positions, and, certainly, you can get those across in these new outlets—but the most effective use of them is to convey an image of what kind of person you are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.