Presidential Race

The First Digital Election

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the U.S. presidential campaign hits the home stretch, the digital- and internet-related efforts by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to sway voters are likely to be a decisive factor in the election.

  • Facts


    • The money spent by the two main candidates in the U.S. presidential race has surpassed $1 billion.
    • The outcome of the November 8 election will have a global impact.
    • Barack Obama’s successful presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 illustrated the value of skilled use of digital campaign tools.
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Trump apology
Trump: Forget the press, read the internet. Source: Polaris/Laif

Hillary Clinton has shown a lot of discipline but little charm in the U.S. presidential campaign. And yet, she can be quite funny, as she proved in June in an exchange of verbal blows with her rival Donald Trump.

He had gone after her in his customarily crude way. The Republican candidate let it be known on his medium of choice, Twitter, that President Barack Obama was giving his political support to “crooked Hillary.” Ms. Clinton fired right back. “Delete your account,” she wrote.

With that, the Democratic candidate demonstrated her knowledge of internet customs. The sentence is a well-known expression in online culture. The comment was re-posted well over half a million times by Twitter users.

Democrats and Republicans have recognized that they must speak the language of the internet. Since Mr. Obama ensured his presidential wins in 2008 and 2012 with a carefully-devised digital strategy, the political class has been using the internet as a political tool, above all Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.

“The candidates are attempting to create the feeling of intimacy and authenticity on social media.”

Keegan Goudiss, digital strategist, Bernie Sanders campaign

“Social media is very important in an election campaign. The number of people online there is growing by the year,” said Chase Campbell of the digital ad and creative agency Harris Media, which has organized many campaigns for the Republicans. “Politicians have understood that they can reach their target group and directly address them nowhere else better than online.”

Depending on the platform, politicians can reach different audiences.

“Facebook and Google have the broadest reach,” Mr. Campbell said. Twitter tends to reach a small group of selected media and sponsors, he says, and Snapchat reaches primarily young voters.

The political parties’ advertising budgets are expected to shift accordingly in the future, according to JC Medici of ad technology company Rocket Fuel, which is based in Redwood City, California.

“Until now, the parties have invested 80 percent in TV ads and 5 to 7 percent in email advertising,” the Rocket Fuel expert said. “The internet won’t completely replace traditional media but will take in an increasingly larger share.”

The sums involved are gigantic. Ms. Clinton and her allies have so far spent more than $770 million. Mr. Trump can’t keep up but, just the same, with $350 million, his campaign is spending a fortune.

To be able to use the campaign budget optimally, Ms. Clinton employs a whole army of internet specialists. They not only spread messages via Twitter and Facebook, they also evaluate mountains of data to determine which advertising is to be placed where and which events should be organized.

At Ms. Clinton’s campaign headquarters in New York City’s Brooklyn, the shy and largely unknown Elan Kriegel heads up a team of 60 people who work with numbers and guide the campaign with mathematical precision.

The U.S. news organization Politico describes Mr. Kriegel as Ms. Clinton’s “invisible guiding hand.” He is one of the top earners in the Democratic candidate’s staff. Never before has a campaign been as data-driven as hers.

Mr. Trump goes about it less methodically, and instead he relies on his instinct for media. It helped carry the first-time political candidate to victory in the Republican primaries, a feat achieved largely without the support of the party’s establishment.

Self-promotion via the internet has allowed him to exploit his status, which includes being a reality-TV celebrity, to maximum effect. Close to 13 million people follow him on Twitter. Often the mainstream news channels discuss his tweets for days. Mr. Trump’s self-promotion operates on the principle that the main thing to do is to spark an uproar. He makes noise online, and television coverage serves as an echo chamber.

During the TV debates between Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton, whole armies of software robots – bots for short – were employed to feed messages automatically to the internet, as a study by the University of Oxford shows.

According to the study, the percentage of such efforts has significantly increased on Twitter, and during the last debate they increased by 50 percent. Since then a debate of its own has been raging about whether such tools should be allowed. The fear is that these bots distort the opinion online.

In Germany, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats want to do without bots for that reason – in contrast to the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany.

But even the most sophisticated bot cannot replace the personal touch.

“The candidates are attempting to create the feeling of intimacy and authenticity on social media. The current election campaign very clearly shows that,” said Keegan Goudiss, a digital strategist who served in the failed U.S. presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Mr. Trump is a particular standout in this technique, says Mr. Goudiss: “The people notice that he is using the Twitter account himself.”

Twitter seemingly serves the New York businessman as a bridge to the present, since he could be said to remain habitually a captive of sorts in the world of the 1980s. In his marble-adorned penthouse, he consumes the internet like a daily newspaper. Each morning, he has his employees print out the top search results for “Donald J. Trump” on Google News. With a marker, he marks what flatters or displeases him.

Since Mr. Trump says he considers the traditional media outlets to be corrupt, he directs his fans to use digital channels: “Forget the press, read the internet.”

Mr. Trump is also seeing digital’s downside. The internet doesn’t forget, and it can fire back.

“Everyone leaves a digital trail in the net. The candidates are constantly confronted with their past. Everything they ever said in front of a camera or posted online is only a click away,” Mr. Goudiss said.

That can come back to haunt candidates, including Mr. Trump. A quick internet search is enough to reveal old videos in which he says demeaning things about women. Since the infamous recordings emerged in which Mr. Trump brags about groping women, his critics are competing to find other incriminating material on the internet.

“That is exactly what is damaging Trump now,” Mr. Goudiss said. “The net is throwing his own messages back at him. That also applies for when he constantly contradicts himself.”

For example, Mr. Trump steadfastly asserts he wasn’t in favor of the 2003 Iraq invasion – which is demonstrably not true.

“The net has made the candidates more vulnerable because all the data that is online, is, in principle, also public,” said Republican consultant Ms. Campbell.

Ms. Clinton has also already felt the effects of that: A mobile-phone video captured a moment when a fainting spell caused the 68-year-old to slump into the arms of her aides. Or when the whistle-blowing platform WikiLeaks released the Democrat’s personal emails that revealed deep riffs within her party.

“There is no secure communication online,” Ms. Campbell said. “Everyone has to expect that everything will be used.”

The possibilities the new media offer go far beyond the traditional branding and advertising messages. The campaigns have long since moved on to so-called micro-targeting of voter segments. At the same time, politicians are copying the marketing methods of retailers.

Politicians are considered as products that have to be sold to different customers using different marketing strategies.

Families with older children are interested in the price of a college education. Young mothers care about proposals for improving childcare. Voters in Florida want to know what the candidates will do to battle water pollution.

In contrast to German political parties, those in the United States have a huge reservoir of data to use to send voters tailor-made messages. The political groups are able to construct a precise voter profile from information about things such as professions, newspaper subscriptions, club memberships and social activities.

Mr. Trump had long dismissed the significance of large data analyses. But now he has brought Big Data firm Cambridge Analytica into his team. The British company specializes in combining large amounts of data with psychographic models. This makes it possible for the opinions and motivations of individual people to be more exactly defined and campaign advertising be accordingly delivered.

Like many other analysis firms, Cambridge Analytica exhaustively fishes out data on Facebook and many other accessible sources, and it also ascribes to the voters certain personality traits. Somebody who has concerns about their future weighing heavily on their minds are given a different message to see than someone who is open for new experiences or places great value on law and order.

But advertising isn’t everything.

At least as important, if not even more important, is personal voter recruiting: Volunteers, who go from house-to-house and try to win over undecided voters and motivate supporters to go out and vote. Mr. Trump is limping far behind Ms. Clinton in this “ground game.”

The Democrat candidate has more offices, volunteers and money to mobilize additional troops for the final spurt. Even in the new world of media, the human factor is likely to be the decisive one.


Astrid Dörner is part of Handelsblatt’s team of correspondents covering finance and U.S. corporations in New York. Moritz Koch is Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent. Britta Weddeling lives in California’s Silicon Valley and reports on the internet and technology industry. To contact the authors:, and 

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