Who’s winning the election on social media?

Hardly a day goes by when a Trump tweet doesn’t reach millions and define one of the stories on the national news. And hardly an hour goes by when the Clinton rapid response team isn’t debunking claims or striving to define how the public views the Democratic candidate.

As product and service marketers, we have a unique viewpoint into an election because we can evaluate tools like social from the perspective of sales. But political marketing also has a unique set of characteristics, not least that there is only one sales day and getting out the vote is at least as important as the ability to persuade undecideds.

The two major campaigns have radically different styles. Trump has risen to the top with a brash, no-holds-barred style that is epitomized in the candidate’s Twitter stream. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is renowned (or notorious) for its military-style discipline and carefully worded messages that rarely ring a sour note but equally rarely catch fire in the zeitgeist. Which approach is more effective in social? Here’s my assessment based on seven criteria:

  • Authenticity
  • Newsworthiness
  • Youth-friendliness
  • Alignment
  • Timeliness
  • Minimal gaffe-iness
  • Bloodiness

Each campaign gets a score from one to five stars for each criterion, as well as a little commentary.


Fundamentally, social media needs to feel real. When a social account purports to come from a candidate, the community needs to feel that the content in that stream is from the politician.

Trump: *****
Clinton: *

The Donald wins here hands down. One gets the sense that the candidate is intimately involved in writing his social messages. He must be, given how often they stir the pot.

By contrast, you can almost see the spreadsheet of three months of tweets prewritten for the Clinton campaign. You can almost hear the focus group verbatims in which they tested “Join Hillary at the rally” versus “Join Secretary Clinton at the rally.” Is it just my imagination, or is it hard to imagine Hillary sitting on the bus from Decatur to Moline typing this:

In fact, many of the Clinton posts are written in third person — a reflection that this is an institutional account, not a personal one.

As a representation of the voice of the candidate, the hair beats the pants-suit hands down. Trump’s posts come from a person. Clinton’s from a messaging team.


Social is most valuable when it drives discussion on the web and in traditional media. You can’t bore an influencer or a network news team into talking about you.

Trump: ****
Clinton: **

Trump’s social presence, especially his Twitter account, makes news on a daily basis. But the discussion and coverage aren’t always good — so I dinged him a point there.

On the Clinton side, her campaign has recently stepped up the attention-getting messages since her focus shifted to the General. Clinton also benefits from a broad range of social efforts from surrogates, who have proven rather adept at shaping the social conversation and headlines. Clinton fans delight that Elizabeth Warren, for example, is on the job across social.

Is it fair to give stars to Clinton for other people’s streams? Heck yes it is, when it’s clear that this stuff is carefully coordinated.


Social is most influential with younger voters. Both major campaigns need to reach out to younger voters.

Trump: **
Clinton: ***

Hard to imagine that either campaign is setting the millennial world on fire. But Trump falters significantly because it’s always all about him — light on issues and perspective.

Clinton has put the focus on hot-button ideas instead of herself, which seems a far more appropriate way for a 68-year-old grandma policy wonk to connect with regular people. It seems as if the Brooklyn team has made a judgment — that Clinton is ultimately someone a voter is going to take to with their left brain.

The Clinton campaign has also been adept at using video — rawish, “real” video to contrast the candidates. That also seems a wise strategy for reaching and connecting with younger voters.


Campaigns need discipline in order to capitalize on the daily news cycle. Campaigns compete to define “the story” for the day, and social can play a powerful role in amplifying a campaign POV and stimulating millions of engaged fans to use their influence to shape digital discussion.

Trump: **
Clinton: *****

Discipline wins out on this dimension. An examination of web activity, press releases, and social accounts shows how thoroughly the Clinton campaign works to deliver a common message everywhere.

The Trump campaign is improving here, but the candidate’s propensity to react emotionally to criticism frequently gets the campaign off message. Reaction to news is essential, but campaigns also need to pivot off of ephemeral stories to their underlying messages. Trump lacks discipline here, though that appears to be changing.


The medium is best when it connects campaign messages to the stories that are lighting up the web during a particular hour or day.

Trump: ***
Clinton: ***

Clinton’s rapid response team is legendary. When attacks are fielded, the campaign replies in moments. Sometimes seconds. But I dinged them two points because sometimes the dryness of the reply content leaves the viewer wishing for some mental moisturizer.

Trump is now focusing on rapid response as well, but the replies often lack substance and instead rely on personal attacks. Playing the (wo)man rather than the ball. Over time, it detracts from responsibility and substance, which are big Trump perception weaknesses.

Minimal gaffe-iness

Because it is billed as a view into the thinking and feelings of candidates, campaigns must take care to avoid delivering major gaffes that alienate followers or reinforce negative impressions of the campaign.

Trump: *
Clinton: ****

It’s not just that Trump gaffes. It’s that the gaffes are so leap-into-the-dry-pool. Clinton has half as many Facebook followers, but is rarely embarrassed by her social team.


Social is an ideal way to deliver red meat to the “base.” Low involvement voters don’t friend politicians. CSPAN viewers do. Red meat excites politically active partisans, and opens up wallets for more donations. This matters a lot,¬†because in an election like this, there are relatively few undecideds to convince. One generally likes or is resigned to voting for one of these candidates because they loathe the other. In such an environment, an energized base is critical.

Trump: ****
Clinton: ***

Republicans are hands-down better at this than Democrats, and Trump is no exception. Swift Boats anyone? The only weakness on the Trump side is that his social activity feeds the passions of the “hard” base — one that wants its red flags crimson, sticky, and dripping. Months of such hemic repasts make it more difficult to unite his party.

All that said, it’s hard to characterize any Clinton campaign as soft. As of this writing, Clinton has had the upper hand message-wise for a few weeks — it’ll be interesting to see if she can keep serving sirloins that still moo against the king of tartare.

Parting thoughts

Lots of ink — err, electrons — have been used to demonstrate the huge role that social played in the Obama elections. But this year is different, and the warring sides are making calculated bets on how they can use social to help get their candidate to 270 electoral votes.

Both major candidates have historically high negatives. Can social play a role in addressing this? I think not. No amount of tweets or six-second videos is going to make most people love Clinton or Trump. But social is playing and will continue to play a critical role in this election.

It’s a bit ironic that social appears to be viewed as a broadcast medium by both camps. For Trump, such broadcasting keeps him in the news and lighting matches under the bone-dry kindling of angry voters disgusted by the status quo. Will it catch fire? For Clinton, the broadcasting is a relentless stream of messages appealing primarily to mind over gut. It’s all: “and another thing to think about… and another… and another.”

Which campaign will succeed? We’ll see.