Trump embraces Snapchat as battle for 2020 youth vote heats up

  • Snapchat
  • Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Snap Inc’s app, known for ephemeral photo messages and bizarre face filters, is suddenly a hot battleground in the 2020 presidential campaign. — AdamPrzezdziek/Visual Hunt/CC BY-SA

The day the US Senate acquitted Donald Trump of impeachment charges, his re-election campaign staff posted a video on Snapchat, where they knew young voters would see it. "Liberals tonight:” it starts. A woman falls to her knees and screams a guttural "NO!!” as newscasters announce Trump’s 2016 presidential win. Then, a spoof cover of Time Magazine shows signs for TRUMP 2028, TRUMP 2032, and so on until a final flourish: "TRUMP 4EVA”.

The clip is one of Trump’s most popular Snapchat posts, according to the campaign. It pushes the right social-media buttons, coming across more like an Internet meme than a traditional political message. Videos like this have helped Trump’s Snapchat following nearly triple to over 1.5 million in about eight months, far exceeding rival Joe Biden’s audience on the app. But the former vice president is starting to invest in the app, too: On May 13, he’s giving an interview on Snapchat’s political news show, Good Luck America.

Snap Inc’s app, known for ephemeral photo messages and bizarre face filters, is suddenly a hot battleground in the 2020 presidential campaign. Its clout in political conversation is smaller, but millennial and Gen-Z voters make up 35% of the US electorate, and Snapchat reaches 75% of them every day, the company says.

America’s first-time voters, in a normal election year, would be registering to vote on college campuses, at the library or their local DMV office. Covid-19 is making that impossible right now, so Snapchat is one of the best ways to get them involved and influence their thinking, political groups say. When a Snapchat user turns 18 in the United States – as up to 500,000 of them do each month – the company displays a voter registration link on their profiles for their entire birthday week.

"Snapchat is the platform that can fill all the institutional gaps in reaching young people," said Mike Ward, the programme director of voter engagement at Democracy Works, a nonprofit that uses technology to make voting easier. "They are uniquely positioned to be the most powerful youth voter registration force in the country.” In the 2018 US midterm elections, Snapchat accounted for 30% of traffic to a Democracy Works website that showed people their nearest polling place.

Voter registration has cratered in the midst of the pandemic, according to a recent report by TargetSmart Communications LLC, a Democratic data and strategy firm. But younger voters may be motivated to weigh in on who should be leading the national response, as well as address the economic downturn, according to Tom Bonier, chief executive officer of TargetSmart.

States are putting alternative voting methods in place that are being applied unevenly, leaving experts with little insight into voter turnout this fall. Younger voters are unaccustomed to voting by mail, so digital outreach to this group is more important than ever, Bonier said.

TikTok, the Chinese-owned short video platform that’s popular with American youth, has mostly stayed out of politics while Snapchat has leaned in. Snap has a dedicated staff offering training to candidates and governments, working closely with campaigns’ digital teams.

Snapchat befuddles older generations, so it’s not as effective for amassing political donations. The biggest benefit, according to the Trump campaign, is the chance to reach the app’s general audience. On Twitter and Facebook, the campaign depends on users sharing political messages to reach more people. On Snapchat, if they post popular content frequently enough, it will appear on the Discover page where many of the app’s 229 million daily users go to watch videos and other content.

Democrats Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg both posted frequently enough to make the Discover page during the recent presidential primary election. Buttigieg made 15-second selfie videos specifically for Snapchat before walking on stage during rallies.

The Biden campaign hasn’t invested as much in digital strategy, choosing instead to prioritise traditional media. For one debate, his granddaughters took over his Snapchat account to reach young voters. But he rarely speaks on the app himself, and he has been slower to hire for his digital team. He faces a formidable Trump digital staff of about 100 people. Trump is holding virtual rallies, gathering email addresses and building outreach lists through digital video and advertising.

It’s not just Snapchat where Biden lags. He has just over five million followers on Twitter, compared to Trump’s 80 million. On Instagram, Biden has two million followers. Trump has 19.6 million.

Biden is trying to change this. The campaign just announced three digital hires from the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris. It plans to double digital staff to about 50 to help counter Trump’s divisive messaging with optimistic content that has the potential to go viral, according to the campaign.

"If we want to have any chance of mobilising young voters in November, that work has to start now, ” said Stefan Smith, Buttigieg’s former online engagement director. "Trump winning the election may not come down to Snapchat, but the fact that the Trump campaign is maximising on every single social media platform is cause for concern.” – Bloomberg

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