“Who was president when you were 17, Mommy?”
This question from my oldest child, then 17 herself, came as Barack Obama readied his first run for the office in 2008. I’m not proud to say that I had to think long and hard to remember.
Even though my children generally reject the term “Millennials” with all the associated societal negative images, they are, in fact, in that age group. In 2008, my oldest and her friends were taking SATs and picking colleges and, thanks to social media, monitoring the historic election. The decision by the Obama campaign to meet young voters where they were—online—probably made as much of a difference in his victory as any speech he delivered.
The precedent for using media to reach the people and influence their votes goes back to the 1906 mid-term elections: Election returns were sent to ships on the Great Lakes. Then in 1916, an inventor with his own “radio telephone” declared that Charles Evans Hughes had defeated Woodrow Wilson. (We know, of course, that, like the Dewey defeats Truman headline some 32 year later, this proved to be incorrect.) Television played a decisive role in the race between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960.
Not surprisingly, the internet as the new mass media was destined to play a significant role in presidential politics. The Obama campaign parlayed this new technology into a win.
Some of the children born in the early 90’s, like my daughter, were too young to vote for Obama the first time. Nonetheless, they were still heavily invested in the election because of the news they gleaned from social media outlets rather than from the television or newspapers.
I listened in awe as they got angry when John McCain tried to pander to the female vote by introducing Sarah Palin into the campaign. It was the girls who were especially insulted that McCain thought they were to be so easily swayed by a young, female face. Meanwhile, Obama’s staff organized what continues to be a successful online presence to rally the people and make them feel closer to the presidency.
I witnessed the carryover from the 2008 election’s social media success firsthand during early voting with two of my daughters. As we passed the signs advertising the names and slogans of the candidates, they took to their phones to look them up. I’m sure that some of the votes they cast were based largely on what they found out as we stood outside the community center on that cloudy October day discussing the election and the weather with others who waited with us.
In 2016, I will wait with all my girls as we vote for the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My children, who have never existed in a world without the internet, are already looking at the candidates from the perspective of how much they will meet the younger voters where they are. They look at the world through a lens that I, as their mother, didn’t have available to me the first time I voted.
However, it is available to me now and I will rely on both conventional and “new age” media outlets to make my final decision. It is not lost on us that there’s not yet been any heavy online presence by any of the people who have announced their bid for the presidency. It will be interesting to see how effectively the eventual nominees use online media and how its continuing evolution plays into the fine outcome as we get closer to November 2016.
Author: Lois Person
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: Thee Erin/Flickr