Some would say that the Presidential Election of 2016 has been one of the most contentious cycles in our nation’s history, and they may be right. Not because of the animosity between the candidates but because of the way in which Americans are receiving information about the candidates and who is voting for whom.
A look back in time shows that the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes as the 18th President of the United States was likely the most bizarre and divisive election because the Presidency was decided in a backroom deal in the Wormley Hotel rather than at the ballot box. New York Governor Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but was one electoral vote shy of the required 185. Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon’s electoral votes were tied up with allegations of fraud and corruption so Congress established a 15 member commission of senators, congressman and Supreme Court justices who gave the election to Hayes in exchange for the Republican removing all US troops from the south, allowing Democrats to control the region and reverse the gains African Americans made in the post Civil War era.
While the unconventional election of Hayes shook American democracy to its core, few people actually know about it because during those times news traveled too slowly to actually impact elections.
Today, thanks to digital newspapers, social media, and a 24 hour news cycle that more resembles theater than reporting of facts, Americans are exposed to a steady stream of information and disinformation which they are asked to decipher. Even with instantaneous fact checking during debates, the tone and bent of how those facts are delivered greatly impact what we believe. Add to the mix, the advent of reporting on early voting from key states and the ball of confusion grows ever larger.
The two major party candidates have the most unfavorable ratings of any other Presidential candidates in history so information for or against those candidates can literally sway the election. That fact is borne out by the see-sawing polls that are delivered to us daily. So whose responsibility is it to control the information delivered to the American public during a campaign? Some say that it should be the role of government by controlling campaign spending. Others say it should be the role of media which has an obligation to remove bias from reporting. For a libertarian leaning Republican campaign consultant, I say the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the American voter.
There is no doubt that messaging plays a huge role in every election cycle and the impact of FBI head, Comey’s letter to congress re-opening then re-closing the Clinton email investigation; information posted on Wikileaks supposedly obtained by Russians and the endorsement of Trump by a KKK backed newspaper will impact the way we think. But in the end it is the voter’s responsibility to make his and her decision based on the information s/he believes is most important.
If this campaign taught us anything it is that digital media and 24 hour news stations are delivering information in a volume so large that it may impact the amount of money a candidate needs to spend to be successful in future campaigns.
When we follow the money in the 2016 Presidential Campaign cycle, it’s ironic that those who raised and spent the most money weren’t the clear winners. Bernie Sanders outraised Hillary Clinton yet lost the primary. Jeb Bush outraised and spent Donald Trump and he lost the primary. In the general election, Hillary Clinton has outraised and spent Donald Trump by a 2-1 margin, yet on the eve of the election, polls are showing them neck and neck. This is a clear contradiction to those on Capitol Hill who are calling for campaign finance reform and limiting the amount of money candidates can spend in a campaign.
While no one can say for certain what will happen on Election Day 2016, (or months after if the polls turn out to be true and the election is handed to Congress to decide) we can safely say that in this election cycle, free and social media had a greater impact on voters’ opinions than the amount of money each candidate raised and spent.
2016 may well be the election cycle when the phrase, “follow the money” is replaced with “follow me on Twitter.”