It was reality TV at its best. There was shouting, insults, bombastic rhetoric, and… Rosie O’Donnell. Welcome to the first 2016 GOP presidential debates. As one political scientist noted, it was Jerry Springer without Jerry. No, this is not your father’s Republican Party anymore. But television viewers ate it up. They didn’t just watch, they tweeted, liked, searched, posted, and searched some more.
This modern day media consumption phenomena creates real-time winners and losers. Marketers call it “buzz.” Google calls it “search.” Whatever you call it, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina owned it during the debates and it will likely deliver a short term boost to their campaigns.
The data from Google Trends shows that during the prime time debates, Donald Trump dominated web searches of people looking for more information on him and his presidential campaign. (Figure 1) It doesn’t hurt that Trump has transformed himself into what political scientist David Schultz would call a politainer. None of his nine competitors on the stage came close to the internet interaction he drove throughout the evening debates.
During the early undercard event called the “happy hour” debates, former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina also dominated internet buzz. (Figure 2) Arguably, she commanded the attention in a more credible way. Fiorina’s presence and responses were articulate, commanding, and authoritative. She wasn’t just a candidate, she was a one-person c-suite—who just happens to be a woman. She clearly connected with the audience in ways her early evening cohort did not.
What both Trump and Fiorina accomplished is part of the modern day political calculus. In reality, it’s not much different from consumer product campaigns. Buzz is one of the seven essential marketing drivers that brands from Proctor & Gamble to Beyonce use to grow their business.
Four years ago, I conducted a similar analysis of how buzz predicted the top finishers in the Iowa Caucuses where Rick Santorum won by a handful of votes. The key is to stay consistent in the messaging and deliver enough strategic product news (campaign stances/messaging) to lead the followers on a journey toward activation—that is, contributing money and voting. Santorum wasn’t able to sustain that early momentum and later dropped out of the race. The jury is still out on whether Trump can also sustain the momentum, especially given his public statements about women and his not-so-wise fight with Fox’s Megyn Kelly.
Social media is also part of the new calculus and contributes significantly to buzz and search. On Twitter alone, interactions with the GOP debate topped major sporting events.
It’s also no coincidence that Facebook co-sponsored the GOP debates with Fox News. Facebook reports that 7.5 million people had more than 20 million interactions on the broadcast—that includes posts, likes and shares. This is the new modern-day political engagement. The candidates answered questions from Facebook during the debates through the channel’s own engagement campaign that drew 5 million views and 40,000 responses. On the day of the event, Trump’s staff used the new “live” on Facebook feature to stream his arrival in Cleveland. As of this writing it has earned more than two million views and 10,000 shares.
Welcome to the 2016 presidential campaign. As the first GOP debates showed, it will be a different kind of series of events with online engagement becoming increasing important drivers for securing funds and votes.