Presidential Front-Runners' Successes, Failures on the 2016 Digital Campaign Trail

The top presidential candidates are charging forward into the digital fray and hoping their approach to wrangling voters online beats the other guy's.

The real “nitty-gritty” of politics has changed since modern technology came on the scene. In the olden days, candidates fought for equal airtime on major television networks and targeted key states on caffeine-fueled, kill-or-be-killed bus tours, anxious to scrape up any and all possible votes. Their parries and jabs at one another were relegated to press interviews, campaign ads, town hall debates and letters to any newspaper editor that would print them.

But today, the American political system has shifted, and the digital mainline to the hearts and minds of voters is too valuable a tool not to leverage. One post is enough to ignite a firestorm of support or send a presidential hopeful spiraling into the death throes of a public relations nightmare. 

The “Vote for XYZ” websites that were so cutting edge in 1996 have been replaced by interactive, content-rich platforms with enough tabs to make even the most veteran political junkie choke on the mounds of information being lobbed at them.

With nearly unlimited access to potential voters, the ones looking for the keys to the White House have taken to technology as the clock counts down to November. 

Ted Cruz: Using Data to Improve Interactions with Potential Voters

In a campaign almost as scripted as his speeches before Congress, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s use of the digital domain has helped the candidate compete with the likes of shoot-first billionaire Donald Trump and politically savvy Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post reported that Cruz's legion of volunteers use mobile tools to profile and improve interactions with potential voters. Though the candidate himself has spoken out against data collection on the part of the government, the tactic has been a valuable one in his bid for the presidency. 

On social media platforms, Cruz’s team is very careful to make the candidate appear down to earth. Reports out of Washington, D.C., characterizing him as the “most hated” man in Congress have stacked the odds against him from a personality perspective. Photos, videos and regular retweets keep Cruz in the forefront of voters’ minds.

A tally mark in the “unfortunate decision” column for the candidate is two-fold. First of all, the release of hours of raw video footage, presumably shot for campaign ads, ended up posted to YouTube. Not only did the hours of video not do much for the candidate’s “humanness” quotient, but it also offered endless inspiration for anyone with enough skill to craft a parody Viagra commercial featuring the candidate and his family. Second, attempts at humor, like the video embedded below of Cruz reading Christmas-themed tales of his Capitol Hill victories to his children, have been disparaged as being Saturday Night Live

Cruz is also the brainchild behind the never before seen raffling of a logoed shotgun. We’ve seen campaign buttons, miniature flags and T-shirts in political races, but a gun? While Cruz is well-known for his pro-Second Amendment stance, many have said the proximity to the December shooting in San Bernardino paints the online sweepstakes in poor taste.

Hillary Clinton: Using All Weapons in Her Online Arsenal

The democratic frontrunner and former secretary of state has run a fairly concise online campaign. Her team hits big-ticket issues, like gun control, women’s reproductive rights and immigration, regularly on social media platforms using bright, clean graphics and video meant to appeal to her voter base and undecideds. Clinton’s camp seems to use all of the weapons in their online arsenal to reach out to voters: GIFs, memes and carefully selected clips from interviews and speeches are common occurrences. 

Despite a sparkling front from her managed platforms, Clinton is not without scandal. The seasoned politician’s use of a private email server while acting as secretary of state for the Obama administration brought allegations of impropriety and endangerment of national security. Though she has since apologized for the situation, as shown below, the sporadic release of these emails by the State Department has continued to barb the otherwise well-run campaign.

In the midst of chatter that the former New York senator and first lady lacks warmth and empathy, a clear effort has been made on the part of her campaign to show a softer side. The Hillary camp has capitalized on and shared tender moments captured on video and has also relied on the steady stream of endorsements from celebrities to win support on the Web.

Donald Trump: Making Waves

The billionaire businessman, famous for his vast real estate holdings and disregard for political correctness, has continued to make waves across the Internet. Unlike Cruz, Clinton and many of the other more mainstream candidates, Trump seems not to have second thoughts when it comes to pushing the “post” button — no matter the topic. His often inflammatory tweets have, on more than one occasion, sparked both protest and support across the Web — his divisive comments about barring Muslim immigrants from the United States being one such example. 

But the Trump camp has made headlines for more than just its use of popular social media platforms. He has also been credited with enlisting the support of the data strategist at L2, Politico reported Jan. 5. Though the “shoot first, ask questions later” Republican frontrunner was generally regarded as a political anomaly who lacked the know-how to take the White House, the boisterous businessman seems to have done what any businessperson would when presented with the same challenge — hire the people who can do what you can’t.

One truly strange thing about the Trump phenomenon is the fact that online missteps that would normally destroy the credibility of a political run for office have only put the candidate where he seems to want to be — in the headlines.

Hillary Clinton said that it is O.K. to ban Muslims from Israel by building a WALL, but not O.K. to do so in the U.S. We must be vigilant! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Jan. 2, 2016

Bernie Sanders: Rocketed into National Spotlight by Tech, Social Media

If the 2016 race needed a grassroots Internet champion, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would likely be it. Though it isn’t clear exactly how much the 74-year-old knows about the technology or social media that rocketed him into the national spotlight, his campaign has grown from an unrealizable pipe dream to a very real challenger to the conventions of the political establishment. Strategists have credited most of the Sanders campaign's success to its connection to younger Americans concerned about affordable health care, college education and civil rights issues.

But the candidate has not been without his own technological scandal. In mid-December, reports surfaced about a weak spot in the Democratic National Committee voter database that allowed the Sanders camp to access to privileged voter information belonging to the Clinton campaign. After firing those involved, Sanders called for an independent investigation into the incident and apologized to Clinton during the Dec. 19 Democratic Debate (video below). The breach, Sanders explained, was made possible by errors made by the DNC’s contractor. 

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at