Logically, it seems as though Democrats would rely more heavily on social media for campaigning than Republicans because of their younger voting base. This notion is partly true and was certainly true in the groundbreaking Obama 2008 campaign. The party’s outreach toward younger voters is just as important today. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has been mocked for her cringe-worthy attempts at appealing to younger voters through social media. In an obvious attempt to bolster her millennial appeal, she tweeted,“How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” But Democrats are not the only ones attempting to capitalize on social media. In fact, the candidate who may benefit the most from social media use this campaign season is Ted Cruz. His revolutionary use of social media in his campaign is not only helping him present himself in a way that is appealing to voters, but suggests that as the role of the Internet and social media in campaigning grows, the role of party elites becomes less significant.
Like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz is not exactly well-liked by his Republican colleagues in Washington, in part because of his tendency to portray himself as the party’s “original outsider” and in part because of his appetite for starting fights with fellow Republicans in the Senate. Just this September he called Mitch McConnell a “flat-out liar,” and even more insulting, he just recently called him a Democrat. While turning his back on the Republican establishment makes a lot of sense in an election where so many voters seem disillusioned with Washington, it means that he needs to be more creative than other candidates in terms of fundraising.
Luckily for Cruz, in the age of social media, it is easier to find alternative ways to fundraise than ever before. Despite, and perhaps even because of, his lack of party connections, Cruz began October with the highest fundraising total of all the GOP candidates and has been climbing in the polls. This positive momentum can be partly credited to CruzCrowd, which his campaign website claims is the “world’s first presidential social crowd-funding platform.”
In the first line of his letter on the homepage of cruzcrowd.com, Cruz writes, “Who says political campaigns are only funded by individuals with deep pockets?” and answers his own question with: “the Washington cartel,” which he later states he intends to “threaten.” The letter is littered with rhetoric about empowering the individual and allusions to the American Revolution. It ends with a series of hashtags: #CruzCrowd, #LetThemLaugh, and the all-capitalized #WE THE PEOPLE. The site allows donors to create pages they can then share on social media, allowing them to track the money they raise when their friends visit the pages and donate. When certain milestones are reached, they receive badges that build up to gifts like free bumper stickers, mugs, and even a signed copy of Cruz’s book. It turns fundraising into a game with actual prizes, and, despite the ridiculous hashtags, it’s proving fairly effective.
One of the Republican Party’s toughest challenges in the past few years has been voter outreach. George W. Bush was arguably voted into office because he was the candidate with whom voters would most like to get a beer. But since then, the Republican Party has nominated candidates who seem, according to some, “out of touch”— a sentiment that helped sink Mitt Romney’s campaign. As soon as he famously wrote off 47 percent of the American public as self-identifying victims, he became almost too perfect a caricature of what the GOP represents to many Americans: a group of rich, white guys who do not sincerely care about the average American.
In his letter, Cruz paints himself in contrast to this caricature. He repeatedly discusses his campaign using the word “we” instead of “I,” identifying as an outsider from the “Washington cartel.” And he repeatedly talks about joining the fight with “fellow patriots.” While it has long been the tradition for Republican candidates to galvanize voters with their prepackaged brand of patriotism, the rhetoric has usually been centered on family values and the American dream. While evoking the idea of the American dream encourages voters to visualize themselves one day joining America’s wealthiest class in a rags-to-riches narrative, Cruz’s rhetoric is less complacent. Like Bernie Sanders, he calls for a full-on revolution.
While the internet and social media have given politicians a direct line to voters for several years now, this is the farthest that anyone has taken it. Almost every politician has a website with a page where supporters can make donations, and they usually promote these pages with social media. Cruz, though, takes it to a new level by lengthening the interaction with donors beyond a one-time transaction. Given a game to play with rewards for recruiting friends, donors’ involvement is more ongoing, which likely creates a sense of heightened stakes in the election. Most importantly, setting up a system in which supporters are rewarded for recruiting other supporters takes away some of the need for the support of party elites. The fact that this system potentially gives politicians more of a chance to interact directly with voters and rack up donations from individuals is a step toward more democratic elections, which is, ironically enough, one of Bernie Sanders’s main campaign issues.
Indeed, for candidates with such radically different ideals and ideas, Cruz and Sanders have more than a few similarities in terms of campaign strategy. Both speak of revolution against the Washington status quo and depend on smaller individual donations to fund their campaigns. Though neither one is leading the polls in his respective party, both are doing better than most pundits and analysts would have originally expected given their histories of bucking the Washington establishment and promoting political ideologies that are out of the mainstream.
While one of Sanders’s key issues in this election is the urgent need for campaign finance reform, ironically both his and Cruz’s relative successes indicate that perhaps, due to the growing role of the Internet in campaigning, the problem is slowly beginning to correct itself. Appealing to party elites used to be paramount in order for presidential candidates to fundraise enough to be taken seriously. But the Internet helps politicians reach voters and potential donors more directly, allowing them to circumvent and avoid altogether courting party leadership. Instead of awkwardly struggling to keep up with newfound politically advantageous social media, and rather than modifying his far-right credentials to appease powerful Republicans, Ted Cruz is rewriting the playbook, creating his own unique path towards the nomination. And as of now, at least, it seems to be working.