The new normal? Campaigns and elections in the contemporary media environment

In our 2011 book, After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, and the New Information Environment, Bruce Williams and I argued that political, economic, cultural, and technological changes in the United States have fundamentally altered the media environment, with significant implications for the practice and even the meaning of politics. This emerging “media regime” blurs traditional distinctions between fact and opinion, news and entertainment, information producers and consumers, and mass mediated and interpersonal communication, creating a political landscape that is both “multiaxial” (i.e., in which control of the public agenda emerges from multiple, shifting, and previously invisible or less powerful actors) and “hyperreal” (i.e., in which the mediated representation of reality becomes more important than the facts underlying it).

The impact of these changes on political campaigns could be seen in small but significant ways as early as the 1980s, when the Reagan campaign used satellite technology and pre-packaged “video news releases” to bypass the national press and target local (and presumably less aggressive) journalists and media outlets (Hertsgaard, 1988). Other signs of change included Ross Perot’s appearances on the cable talk show, Larry King Live to jump start his third party candidacy, and Bill Clinton’s appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show (think sunglasses and saxophone) and MTV (think boxers or briefs), all in 1992; John McCain’s unprecedented use internet fundraising in 2000; Howard Dean’s insurgency campaign fueled by his (and Joe Trippi’s) creative use of the internet to motivate and mobilize young supporters in 2004; and the implosion of Senator George Allen’s reelection bid (and presidential aspirations) in 2006, the result of a cell phone video that went viral (think “macaca moment”).

By 2008 and 2012 the use of digital, social, and non-traditional media and technology to announce ones candidacy, fund-raise, reach and engage supporters, and get out the vote had become firmly entrenched as an integral part of campaigning, more effectively by Democrats than Republicans (Kreiss, 2012). But despite some prominent examples (e.g., Saturday Night Live’s parodies of Sarah Palin; The Daily Show’s election coverage; The Colbert Report’s satirical civic lessons on campaign finance; the viral releases of problematic comments by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama; even Obama’s ability to overtake front runner Hilary Clinton), the impact of this reconstituted information environment remained largely channeled within the traditional media and political parties, often in informal partnership with tech savvy people “borrowed” from digital media companies (Kreiss, 2016).

The 2016 presidential campaign was a more radical departure from the recent past. The success of Donald Trump’s and (though ultimately falling short) Bernie Sander’s insurgent campaigns would be unthinkable in the campaign structure of the late 20th Century. To be sure, the new information environment did not cause their success – there were real issues of race, class, gender, religion, globalization, culture, and a deep mistrust of both the traditional media and Washington politics driving these candidates’ unexpected popularity. But most of these fissures have existed since the nation’s founding, and none were unique to this election. What was unique was the ability of a 75 year old socialist and a 70 year old businessman turned reality television celebrity to exploit the contemporary information environment in ways that were unprecedented, and done outside – and against the concerted efforts – of the traditional institutions of national politics.

Consider the Trump campaign. While disputes over “the facts” are common, Trump took this to a new level, demonstrating that a candidate can make statements that were verifiably false, be called out on these misstatements, and pay no political price for them. His campaign shattered the already dissolving distinction between news and entertainment, with primaries resembling nothing so much as a reality television show, debates that drew huge audiences in large part for the spectacle, and a traditional news media that provided Trump with unprecedented coverage because of his celebrity status. The presumed importance of both “free” (i.e., positive news coverage) and “paid” (i.e., televised campaign ads) mass media was upended by his use of Twitter to speak directly to, motivate, and mobilize his followers. And his message was amplified through online social networks, making his followers both consumers and producers of campaign discourse. Combined, these tactics exploited both the multiaxiality and hyperreality of the current information environment.

The future is difficult to predict, but one thing seems certain: Donald Trump is not an aberration. The type of candidates that emerge (in terms of ideology and personality), where they emerge from, who they mobilize, and how they exploit the radically changed information environment, will depend on the context. But the days of campaigns that are controlled by a stable set of political and media elites are over.