Wharton’s Pinar Yildirim speaks with Wharton Business Daily on Sirius XM about how social media is changing political competition.

In his short-lived campaign for president, entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $1 billion of his own money before dropping out of the race in March 2020. More than 70% of that budget went toward advertising.

The extraordinary spend highlights just how much cash it takes to run for public office in America and why it’s so difficult for political newcomers to gain momentum at the polls without connections to influential donors (or in Bloomberg’s case, his own deep pockets). The problem perpetuates through election cycles, which is why up to 90% of incumbents are reelected in what research calls “the incumbency advantage.”

How Has the Internet Revolutionized Political Campaigns?

But social media has changed the game, allowing incumbents and newcomers alike to speak directly to constituents on everything from policy to what they had for dinner. Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to use the medium, which was still nascent during his 2008 bid, and Donald Trump took to Twitter almost daily to express himself without the filter of traditional media.

“If you look at the way that politicians communicate today, it’s very different than the way that they used to communicate five, 10 years ago,” Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim said. “They would speak through the official speakers or they would be on TV. They would be in print or official online newspapers. Today, they are communicating through places like Twitter. And I think that begs a question, why are they doing that? Is there any benefit to communicating on channels like Twitter?”

“This is not about the age of your constituency.” — Pinar Yildirim

A study co-authored by Yildirim offers some answers. “Social Media and Political Contributions: The Impact of New Technology on Political Competition,” written with Maria Petrova and Ananya Sen, finds that political newcomers can get a substantial boost in support by using social media channels, which cost next to nothing and are easily tapped by anyone with an internet connection. The finding is important because it indicates how social media can help level the playing field in politics, where money and access to formal communication channels pose huge barriers to new entrants.

“Never have politicians been so accessible to the public,” the authors wrote in an opinion piece for The Globe Post. Yildirim recently spoke about the researchers’ findings during a segment of the Wharton Business Daily radio show on Sirius XM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Using Social Media for Political Campaign Fundraising

The study, which will be published in Management Science, measured support for a candidate based on donations from individual citizens and whether that support increased after the candidate opened a Twitter or Facebook account. Yildirim said she and her colleagues were surprised to find such a significant effect: Within the first month of using Twitter, politicians were able to raise between 1% and 3% of what they would have raised in a two-year traditional campaign. But that gain flowed almost exclusively to newcomers, not incumbents. And it was amplified when candidates included hyperlinks to more information.

Yildirim made it clear that the advantage has nothing to do with assumptions about age; there is simply more to learn about new candidates.

“This is not about the age of your constituency. This is not because the political newcomers are somewhat more technologically savvy, or their base is younger and that’s where they can communicate and find those individuals on social media,” she said. “We tested all of these, and these are not the drivers.”

Beyond communicating their policy views, new candidates can humanize themselves through their social media accounts, and that helps voters feel more connected to them. For example, former Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg introduced his shelter dogs to his 2 million Twitter followers, while U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren used her Instagram account to chat live with supporters who made small contributions to her presidential campaign.

Those small contributions — often between $5 to $100 — seem unlikely to move the needle in a multimillion-dollar political campaign. But the researchers said they are an important part of the voting process because they represent hope.

“There’s this idea that if there are many of us just donating in small amounts, eventually that will turn into a sea of donations, and that could help this person to get elected down the road,” Yildirim said. “So, donations are very meaningful in a number of ways.”

“You don’t have to have the big money, big bucks, big fundraisers, big supporters to be able to communicate on Twitter with your constituency.” — Pinar Yildirim

In Politics, All Communication Counts

If video killed the radio star, as the 1980 pop song declared, will Facebook kill nationally televised debates or news interviews that are the hallmark of old-school political campaigns? Probably not. As Yildirim pointed out, organic coverage from newspapers or television stations is free and reaches a wide audience. And while costly, paid advertising allows candidates to target a specific message to a specific audience. However, so does social media. It cannot be discounted as a low-cost, powerful tool in political competition.

“You don’t have to have the big money, big bucks, big fundraisers, big supporters to be able to communicate on Twitter with your constituency and tell them about what your ideas are for the future,” Yildirim noted. “You can tell them about who you are, what your values are, and this is typically what we see politicians do. They talk about themselves. They talk about their dog, they talk about their favorite sports team, they talk about their favorite place to go in the neighborhood. Of course, you can always talk about your policies and what you hope to achieve if you were elected into an office. And you can do this way before you officially declare running for an office.”

The scholars believe the intersection of social media and politics is ripe for more research, and their paper makes a notable contribution in the field. The finding suggests that, with enough strategy, social media could erase the incumbency advantage and bring American politics back to its grass roots.

“As political campaigns are becoming increasingly more expensive and the need to reach out to constituencies is becoming more vital, social media will undoubtedly play a more important role in determining electoral outcomes as it gives young politicians a platform,” they said in the op-ed.