Election Day and beyond: Running for office in the Digital Age

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It’s time to vote! Perhaps you ran to the polls this morning to help the candidate you love become our next president. Or, maybe your vote just celebrates your right to do so and the end of a very long ad season. Either way, there’s no denying the Trump/Clinton race has been particularly intense. Dominated by unprecedented levels of mudslinging and scandals—the effect may last longer than Election Day.

A sky-high level of controversy is characteristic of this year’s election. But, it begs a question about whether Trump and Clinton are that much more controversy worthy than candidates in the past. Could this level of scrutiny be just a natural outcome of running for office in the Digital Age?

Trump and Clinton have both had their turns wiping egg off their faces. Trump has been skewered for such things as his tax returns, The Trump Foundation expenditures and a rather nasty recorded conversation. Clinton has been dragged through the mud, as well—her role in Benghazi, money given to The Clinton Foundation (apparently all important people have foundations), and the security and secrecy of a private email server.

There has been a lot of bad press.

Stories like these have Americans on both sides of the fence throwing up their arms (me included!). But, I’m also curious to know how different these candidates really are from others who have come before them.

Welcome to the Digital Age

Candidates today run campaigns differently than they did even four years ago. They have to. Welcome to the age of digital media, where an influx of social media tools enable message delivery to millions (okay…billions) of people around the world with the tap of a button.

Although the Obama campaign has been touted for its social media savvy, the 2016 race has been called “the first true social media election” per the dramatic extent to which social media channels have been used and relied on.

Candidates today have unparalleled access to the people they want to reach. They also have near total control over the messages they deliver. However, the opposition has the same benefit of unrestricted, zero-gatekeeper access. As an audience, we now experience (and engage in) a much more unfiltered communications battle.

According to Pew Research Center, about a third of 18- to 29-year olds said social media was the most helpful source for learning about the 2016 election. But, social media stories aren’t only for social media followers. Rather, social media impacts, and often defines, the entire news cycle, as news outlets vie to unpack multitudes of online comments, accusations and responses.

The Digital Age isn’t just about slinging mud. Everything is now traceable and on record, which also brings a new level of actual transparency. This access has changed the way news media cover politics. Historically, standards of political journalism offered more protection for the private lives of public figures. The line between privacy and public interest, however, has disappeared as today’s publics expect and demand the most personal and intimate details.

This is convenient for those of us who want to know more about the character and values of our future president. It’s not so convenient for anyone with a skeleton or two (or more) in his or her closet.

What’s Next?

It has been an uphill battle for both of this year’s nominees. But, perhaps more interesting than how 2016 plays out for either of them is its impact on future candidates.

As technology continues to develop, the level of access and scrutiny will continue to intensify. Could this dampen the quality of future candidates (or at least narrow the pool of quality candidates) as good, qualified people opt not to submit themselves to such a brutal attack by innuendo in the court of public opinion?

We won’t know any of these long-term effects by the end of today’s election. But, don’t worry—in about three years, there will be another 12 months worth of political ads and online posts more than happy to fill us all in.

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