Influencer Marketing Is Becoming a Priority for Political Candidates

Candidates can use it to reach coveted younger voters

Elizabeth warren at a rally taking a selfie with a fan
Using influencers is a great way to attract younger voter attention.
Getty Images

In 2016, college voter turnout was only 48.3%, but now it’s expected to nearly double as 80% of Gen Z college students prepare to cast ballots in 2020. Gen Z is about to make big waves in the next election, but the scope of that impact won’t just be shaped by the information it concerns. It will be driven by where that information comes from.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, political campaigns are increasingly borrowing a tactic brands have been successfully using for years: influencer marketing.

It makes sense. A 2018 survey revealed that 82% of Gen Z and younger millennial consumers count Snapchat, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and their desktop newsfeeds among their top news sources. News influencers who post on these sites determine what information Gen Z consumes. Brands know this, so they use influencers to control their brand narratives on social media, particularly among Gen Z.

Now, politicians and voting advocacy organizations are following suit.

The push notification news cycle

Whereas the 24-hour news cycle is defined by a constant, passive stream of news content, the Gen Z news cycle is dictated by push notifications from must follow accounts. Gen Z doesn’t keep one eye on the stream; they tune in only when someone they trust creates content. As a result, the rhythm of news consumption is more fluid and dependent on when politicians or news influencers post.

Gen Z doesn’t keep one eye on the stream; they tune in only when someone they trust creates content.

News influencers like Philip DeFranco, Ben Shapiro and Chapo Trap House increasingly dictate the news cycle for Gen Z. DeFranco is a great example of an influencer who exists on top of traditional news, curating stories of the day and packaging them into bite-sized YouTube videos. Instead of slogging through an hour of evening news, DeFranco followers simply tune in for 10 minutes. Similarly, podcasters like Chapo Trap House offer livestream commentary on events like the Democratic debate for those that want an active role in news consumption.

Influencer impact in 2020

Influencers aren’t just reporting on the news, however. The tectonic shift in how Gen Z consumes information has given more power to influencers, and politicians are partnering with them to build support and sway election outcomes.

This goes beyond candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren taking selfies with her fans to drum up organic support online. Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump are among the presidential hopefuls integrating social media influencers into their 2020 campaigns.

Harris, for example, has tapped influencers on YouTube to promote her candidacy in exchange for campaign merch and entry to her events. Between November 2018 and February 2019, articles about Harris produced more than 16 million shares and interactions from influential Twitter and Facebook accounts, according to NewsWhip. In comparison, Warren and Sanders generated only 14.2 million and 10.6 million, respectively.

Using social media stars for political campaigning is practically old hat for Sanders, who worked with an engaged audience of influencers for his 2016 run. For 2020, his camp is focusing more on one-time work with specific influencers that can spread his progressive messaging to followers on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch. He even sat down with rapper Cardi B in July 2019 to discuss economic, racial and social justice. She posted clips of the interview on her Instagram, which boasts 53.6 million followers.

Trump hasn’t been shy about putting his fervent fan base to use, either. In July 2019, he gathered his most passionate online supports for a White House “social media summit.” Among them was James O’Keefe, a right-wing activist and founder of Project Veritas, and Twitter influencer Carpe Donktum, whose doctored video of former Vice President Joe Biden went viral. He’s also partnered with a variety of YouTube personalities—from gamers to wildlife enthusiasts to fitness gurus—to push his agenda.

What’s next?

Last year, Gen Z helped young people overtake older generations in voter turnout. We’re just starting to see what they’re capable of. Gen Z’s affinity for alternative sources of information have opened doors to a whole new cycle of news and has folded online celebrities directly into political campaigning.

Influencer strategies haven’t eclipsed time-honored traditions like canvassing, television ads and mailers yet. In fact, they currently represent a small portion of the $12.6 billion spent on candidate outreach for the 2020 election. But that doesn’t mean they won’t take up a larger portion of spend in the very near future. Brands control their narratives using influencers on social, and so do politicians.

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