Expect more political ads, fundraising messages and live video streams in your inbox and news feeds as the candidates for governor of South Carolina beef up their social media presence in the runup to November’s general election.
The ads — a “back-to-school” campaign that gives failing letter grades to McMaster’s Democratic opponent, state Rep. James Smith, on various issues — will run on multiple platforms during the fall campaign season.
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Republican McMaster’s campaign did not disclose how much the ad campaign is costing.
But the expense is not small, one Charleston social media expert said.
And social media have become increasingly more sophisticated, a Clemson University expert says. Give Facebook the profiles of 100 supporters, and it will find 1,000 potential ballot box allies.
“Gov. McMaster is committed to reaching all voters, whether in person or online,” campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said. “Our campaign is utilizing every resource at our disposal to make sure all South Carolina voters know that he is working to lower our taxes, adding thousands of new jobs and fighting to keep our families safe.”
Smith’s campaign said it is working on its own Facebook advertising, but would not provide specifics.
Campaigns increasingly have turned to social media to spread their message and engage with voters.
“Right now everything is pay to play,” said Republican digital consultant Wesley Donehue, founder and chief executive of Push Digital, a digital agency based in Charleston. “The first tactic political candidates have to understand is you’re not just going to reach people online without dedicating a significant portion of your campaign budget.”
How much? At least 20 percent of the $10 million-plus the candidates for S.C. governor will spend.
Maybe more if they’ve got it, said Donehue, who has worked for a slew of GOP candidates, including, early on, Catherine Templeton’s unsuccessful GOP primary campaign.
“The strongest thing they can do right now is send targeted messages to targeted audiences, and talk specifically to certain individuals and certain demographics,” said Donehue. “On TV, you’re talking to a broad audience. The most you can do there is target specific channels or television shows.
“But, on the internet, you can target a specific person on their device that they are carrying around in their pocket all day and looking at four hours — or more — a day.”
Give them 100 and they will find 1,000
Campaigns can filter their target audience by age, gender, location and interests, whether conservative politics or environmental issues or both. That enables candidates to target their message to turn out those inclined to vote for them and avoid those who won’t, said Clemson University economics professor Patrick Warren.
Once a core audience has been built, Facebook can create a lookalike audience to pitch a candidate to, significantly widening a campaign’s advertising reach.
“If I have a set of 100 people, Facebook can help you target 1,000 more people like that,” Warren said. “You don’t know what brings those people together … but Facebook can help me identify people just like those (first 100) people.”
Before June’s GOP primary, McMaster’s campaign said it reached more than 181,000 GOP voters an average of more than four times each via YouTube. It also reached primary voters 7.5 times each on Facebook and was able to target S.C. voters who cast ballots for President Donald Trump, McMaster’s ally, in 2016 but never had voted before in a GOP primary.
“During the primary, we primarily utilized Facebook for targeted social media outreach to echo messages we were sharing on the stump or on TV,” the McMaster campaign said. “Through new features on the platforms, we were able to use resources to advertise to specific audiences of primary voters — whether by age or region.”
During the GOP runoff, the campaign reached its target audience — those it thought had voted for Templeton in the primary, where she finished third — an average of 13 times each through Facebook, and those it knew previously voted for McMaster four times each. It also targeted an older demographic — more than 90 percent of whom were 35 years or older.
“The benefit of social media is it eliminates the middle man and allows us to show the people of South Carolina the governor outside of the State House,” the McMaster campaign said.
That included using the Twitter hashtag #SCWinning to promote the campaign’s statewide bus tour during the primary, showing the Republican scooping ice cream for police officers, welcoming screaming music festivalgoers and playing guitar between campaign stops.
McMaster’s campaign also has rolled out short, 10- to 30-second ads on Facebook to promote its pro-gun rights and pro-business stances, in addition to testimonials from millennials and women supporting the governor and his lieutenant governor running mate, Pamela Evette of Travelers Rest.
Smith’s campaign said it could not immediately provide numbers but said it, too, plans to employ hyper-targeting, using voters’ interests, moving forward to connect with voters.
“Anyway to reach voters throughout South Carolina, anyway we can get James’ and (running mate) Mandy (Powers Norrell’s) message out to every South Carolinian is something we will take a strong look at,” campaign manager Scott Hogan said.
But, Hogan said, social media will not replace the campaign’s focus on retail politics.
“But, certainly, it allows for campaigns to amplify their message and reach (voters) in an easier and efficient way,” Hogan said. Still, he added, “Knocking on doors, meeting with voters, is just as important as it’s ever been.”
‘It’s about where eyeballs are going’
Social media strategy is more important to campaigns, in part, because how voters consume news has changed in the last few years.
About two-thirds of U.S. adults now get at least some of their news on social media, with 2 in 10 adults doing so often, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. That is up from 62 percent in 2016.
For the first time in the center’s surveys, the survey also found more than half — 55 percent — of U.S. adults older than 50 were getting news on social media sites, up from 45 percent in 2016.
“It’s also about where eyeballs are going,” Clemson’s Warren said.
Plus, social media is easy to use, allowing campaigns to push out ads quickly in response to the issues as they change during a race, he said. “That makes social media super powerful.”
Thus far, Smith’s campaign has focused on using Twitter and Facebook Live to broadcast the Democrat’s message and campaign activities, focusing on his military service in Afghanistan and willingness to cross party lines “to create real change in South Carolina.” It also has set up Facebook pages targeted to veterans, students and women who support the Columbia Democrat.
“Twitter is where you reach influencers. Facebook is where you reach your uncle, your grandmother,” Charleston’s Donehue said. “The reason Donald Trump is so big on Twitter is because he moves the media with Twitter and the media moves the people.”
Both campaigns have used Twitter to publicize media appearances and the latest favorable poll or campaign ad.
“Twitter is the new press release. Facebook, YouTube is where you want to reach people,” Donehue said. But, he added, “Twitter is very difficult for James Smith and Henry McMaster because they don’t have a massive Twitter following.”
Combined, McMaster and Evette have more than 22,000 Twitter followers to Smith and Norrell’s more than 19,000.
Instagram, too, has become a powerful tool for campaigns “because the user growth is extreme.” Instagram also is owned by Facebook, “which layered on all their data targeting” onto it, Donehue added.
Both McMaster and Smith are on Instagram.
Smith’s profile is full of photos of his family and of his military service.
McMaster’s shows groundbreakings, bill signings, speeches and business tours, demonstrating his work to build the economy.
“Technology changes so fast. These new platforms emerge ... that give candidates and supporters a lot of power,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said.