Presidential Campaigns in the Age of Social Media

Clinton and Trump

by William L. Benoit (Author) Mark J. Glantz (Author)
©2020 Monographs VIII, 170 Pages


This book offers content analyses of the 2016 presidential candidate campaign messages from the primary and the general election. The chapters examine both new (Twitter, Facebook) and traditional (TV spots, debates, speeches) media employed in this contest. This allows comparison of campaign phases (primary versus general), candidates (Republican primary and Democratic primary candidates; general election candidates), and message forms. The results are compared with data from analyses of previous presidential campaigns.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter One Introduction
  • Chapter Two Methods and Procedures
  • Chapter Three Candidacy Announcement Speeches
  • Chapter Four Primary Television Spots
  • Chapter Five Primary Debates
  • Chapter Six Primary Social Media
  • Chapter Seven Primary TV Talk Shows
  • Chapter Eight Nomination Acceptance Addresses
  • Chapter Nine General Television Spots
  • Chapter Ten General Debates
  • Chapter Eleven General Social Media
  • Chapter Twelve Conclusions and Comparisons
  • Appendix Meta-Analysis of Research on the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse
  • References
  • Index


The 2016 presidential race was highly unusual in a variety of ways. For example, Donald Trump relied less on TV spots, and more on social media, than candidates in previous races. The candidates in 2016—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—were the two least popular presidential candidates for as long as this variable has been measured (Collins, 2016). The electorate has also shifted over time: most voters now dislike the opposing party more than they like their own party (Abramowitz & Webster, 2016, 2018), giving candidates more incentive to attack than in previous years. As in the 2000 presidential election, the candidate who won the popular vote was not the candidate who won the Electoral College (this situation also occurred twice in the 1800s), although in 2016 Donald Trump won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by millions of votes (Kreig, 2016), more than five times the number as in 2000. Voters have differences in their beliefs, values, and attitudes (Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010), which means they do not all react the same way to a given message. Nevertheless, considerable evidence confirms that election campaign messages have significant effects on voters. A meta-analysis of the effects of watching election debates on voters found that these events increase voters’ knowledge of the candidates’ issue positions, agenda-setting, perceptions of the candidates’ character, vote preference; these effects are even larger for primary debates than general election debates (Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003). Meta-analysis of the effects of TV spot on voters found that these ←vii | viii→messages increase issue knowledge, affect perceptions of the candidates’ character, influenced agenda-setting, and affected voter turnout (Benoit, Leshner, & Chattopadhyay, 2007). Reinemann and Maurer (2005) showed that viewers react differently to acclaims and attacks in debate messages. Research also established that topic of campaign messages have effects: Candidates who stress policy more than their opponents (and character less) were significantly more likely to win elections (Benoit, 2003). Election campaign messages are clearly capable of influencing voters.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was well-known; she had served as First Lady, Senator from New York, Democratic presidential primary candidate, and Secretary of State. On the other hand, Donald Trump had never served in elective office so he had no public political record for voters to consider. Nor was it easy for voters to infer his political positions from his political party affiliation. He declared he was a Republican in 1987, switched to the Independence Party of New York in 2001, said he was a Democrat in 2009, changed to the Republican Party, registered as an independent, and in 2012 he registered again as a Republican (Political positions of Donald Trump, 2018). Of course, he was known as a real estate magnate and television personality. It is difficult to imagine that primary and general election messages (speeches, debates, ads, tweets, and so forth) did not help voters learn about Donald Trump as a presidential candidate or influence their attitudes toward him. There is no doubt that this presidential campaign deserves scholarly attention.

Previous research has established baselines for select aspects of the content of presidential campaign messages such as primary and general TV spots, primary and general debates, or primary (announcement) and general (acceptance) speeches (see, e.g., Benoit, 2007). Research has started to apply Functional Theory to social media: 2012 Facebook posts (Shen & Benoit, 2016); 2016 gubernatorial, senate, and house tweets in 2016 (Benoit & Stein, 2018). With the emergence of social media as a key medium of communication in 2016, content analysis of candidate messages on Twitter and Facebook in particular deserves scrutiny. This book will add to our understanding of this watershed election while comparing the content of new social media to that in more traditional media.

Bill would like to thank his family, Pamela J. Benoit and Jennifer M. Benoit-Bryan, for their continuing support. I also appreciate Mark’s excellent work on our book. Mark would like to thank his partner Amy, his tall son Charlie, and his colleagues at St. Norbert College. Bill and Mark would like to that Professor Todd Holm for permission to reprint the article reporting a meta-analysis of Functional Theory from Speaker & Gavel.

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Chapter One


Considering the prominence of the United States in the world today, as well as the size and complexity of the U.S. itself, the occupant of the Oval Office is extremely important, the most powerful elected official in the world. He or she leads America’s foreign policy—including our national defense, trade with other countries, and foreign aid—and administers a federal government that oversees an ever-increasing population and incredibly complex domestic policies. Accordingly, any presidential election merits scholarly attention, including the one conducted in 2016.

However, the 2016 presidential campaign in particular deserves our careful consideration. Regardless of which candidate, or whose policies, one embraces, there is no doubt whatsoever that President Donald Trump advanced far different policies and enacted a much different persona than Hillary Clinton would have if she had won the Electoral College in 2016. This election dramatically underscores that presidential elections matter greatly to our country and the importance of studying these quadrennial events.

No two presidential elections are exactly the same. The nominees change from election to election; even candidates who run more than once (such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama) are not exactly the same (same persona, same policies) the second time around, when they sought re-election, as they were in their initial run. For example, incumbent candidates can boast ←1 | 2→of a record in the office being contested and be criticized for their record in the Oval Office, unlike challengers. This feature guarantees that candidates who win an initial term in the White House will run a different campaign when seeking re-election. Furthermore, the electorate changes every four years as some voters pass away or stop participating in elections and new citizens reach voting age. The issues that matter most to voters change from one election to another. For example, joblessness or inflation may become more or less important to voters as perceptions of the economy shift. Some voters’ policy preferences shift over time and they react to newly emergent problems and situations. For example, the horrific events of 9/11 changed how voters and candidates felt about terrorism. Candidates running for office in 2000 (or before) had no reason to present plans to deal with the kind of terrorism that flew highjacked airplanes into buildings—but in 2004 and beyond this was an issue that needed to be addressed in campaigns. The media available for candidates to use to reach voters evolves over time (e.g., from radio to television to webpages to social media). However, in the midst of this diversity one could argue that the 2016 presidential campaign was particularly unusual, sharply distinct from earlier contests.

In 2016 neither major party nominee was the sitting president or vice president (Vice President Joe Biden declined to run). In modern history this situation had occurred only in 1952 and 2000. Other differences between 2016 and other presidential elections can be identified as well. No candidate had ever relied on social media as much, or as effectively, as Donald Trump did in this campaign. Partly because of his use of social media and his penchant for attracting media attention through behavior many considered outrageous, total spending on presidential television advertising dropped for the first time in recent history (still, $2.4 billion dollars were spent on the 2016 presidential primary and general election campaigns; Ingraham, 2017). On the other hand, spending on digital media increased $1.2 billion from 2012 (Borrell Associates, 2017). When former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination she became the first woman selected as the presidential nominee of a major party. Other women, such as Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, had served as major party vice presidential candidates but never in history had a woman received the Democratic or Republican nomination for president. Furthermore, presidential candidates without previous experience in office are quite rare. One of the relatively successful third party candidates in recent history, business magnate H. Ross Perot, who had no elective experience, lost the his two bids for the presidency. Even actor Ronald Reagan had served as governor of California before he ran for president. Donald Trump managed to win both the Republican nomination and the Electoral College without any prior experience in elective office. Having no ←2 | 3→experience as a politician, Trump repeatedly boasted of his superb management experience in business (although he curiously he refused to release his tax returns to show how wealthy he was). He capitalized on his circumstances by running as an outsider and claiming his primary campaign was self-funded (see Carroll, 2016). Another difference is the growing partisan divide in America. Davenport (2017) explained that “as recently as the early 1970s, party unity voting was around 60% but today it is closer to 90% in both the House and Senate.” This polarized environment was another important factor in the 2016 elections.

Expectations were toppled in the 2016 presidential campaign. Commentators thought “Jeb Bush would take the Republican presidential nomination” (Kaye, 2017). In contrast, Donald Trump was not the favorite when he entered the race on June 16, 2015. In fact, a public opinion poll from that month put Jeb Bush at 22% and Trump at 1% (Todd & Murray, 2015). In September pollster Nate Silver concluded that Donald Trump was not likely to win the Republican nomination (Tani, 2015). Clinton did secure her party’s nomination, as expected, but no one anticipated Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong primary challenge. In October odds makers gave Hillary Clinton the nod, concluding that her chances of winning the presidency were far better than any other candidate, and over seven times as likely as Trump. However, Trump confounded almost everyone by winning the GOP nomination in the primary campaign and the Electoral College in the general campaign (although he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes; Kreig, 2016).

Trump’s campaign style was also unprecedented. He broke with tradition by spending less on television spots than recent presidential candidates. A report issued by Borrell Associates observed that “The 2016 presidential campaign proved, for the first time, that a candidate doesn’t have to match or outspend an opponent in TV commercials—or even in overall funds raised—to win an election” (Kaye, 2017). Instead of spending vast sums on TV spots, Trump relied heavily on social media and coverage in the news media to reach voters. Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s digital campaign in 2016, observed that “Twitter is how he [Trump] talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won” (60 Minutes, 2017). The business magnate also freely insulted his opponents, giving them derogatory nicknames such as “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Little Marco” Rubio, or “Crooked Hillary” Clinton. Clearly, the 2016 American presidential election deserves study.

The 2016 campaign also merits scholarly inquiry because of the extremely close outcome. Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes (Abramson, 2016) but Trump took the Electoral College by 306 to 232 (270 votes are needed to win). Even the Electoral College outcome was closer than it appears. Had only 38,872 voters switched from Trump to Clinton in three battleground states ←3 | 4→(Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) Clinton would have won the Electoral College as well as the popular vote (or, if 78,000 Democrats who stayed home had actually gone to the polls in these states and voted for Clinton, the Democrat would have won; or if 78,000 fewer Trump voters had actually cast votes he would have lost the Electoral College, The Economist, 2016). Trump’s margin of victory was razor thin when over 130 million votes were cast in this election (this narrow victory could well be why President Trump so grudgingly accepts the intelligence community’s conclusions of Russian meddling in the election: His win could be seen to be a result of Russian meddling rather than his own appeal to voters). It is difficult to deny that campaign messages are vitally important in these circumstances.

A final reason to study the 2016 presidential campaign concerns the Democratic and Republican nominees. Collins (2016) explained that “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in more than 30 years of ABC News/Washington Post polling…. With registered voters, the two are basically tied: Clinton has 59% unfavorability and Trump has 60%.” This was a campaign like no other.

This study investigates the 2016 presidential campaign using the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse (Benoit, 2007). Functional Theory cannot provide answers to all possible questions—no theory of election messages can do so—but it does answer useful questions about functions and topics of these messages. Furthermore, longitudinal studies of a variety of message forms (such as announcement speeches, acceptance addresses, TV spots, debates; Benoit, 2007) provide an important context for understanding the 2016 presidential campaign. This study also provides insight into the relatively new campaign medium of social media.


VIII, 170
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. VIII, 170 pp., 1 b/w ill., 50 tables

Biographical notes

William L. Benoit (Author) Mark J. Glantz (Author)

William L. Benoit (Ph.D., Wayne State University) is a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He has published books and journal articles on functional theory, which he developed with his co-authors. Mark J. Glantz (Ph.D., University of Missouri) is an associate professor of communication and media studies at St. Norbert University. He has published books and articles on a variety of topics including Persuasive Attacks on Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Primary.


Title: Presidential Campaigns in the Age of Social Media
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