If a tree falls in the forest — or, as the case may be, if Joe Biden conducts a virtual town hall — and there’s no one to hear it, does it make any noise?
With rallies and other live events frozen by the pandemic, the presidential campaign is limited to news coverage (so-called earned media), paid ads and, importantly, social media. As Barack Obama proved in 2008 and 2012, and Donald Trump demonstrated in 2016, social media is critically important in modern politics, even without a novel virus.
Which brings us to April 28, when the Biden campaign held a virtual town hall to discuss women’s issues and to showcase an endorsement from the 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton. The hourlong event ended with Biden’s YouTube channel having just 7,074 viewers. Additionally troubling for the former vice president, there were 978 “likes” and 2,400 “dislikes.”
Such audience numbers would be disappointing for a mayoral campaign in Dubuque, and the negative feedback is flat out alarming. After 24 hours of replays, the event had reached 61,000 views, with dislikes still exceeding likes by three to one. Part of Biden’s problem: his YouTube channel has roughly 50,000 subscribers, while Donald Trump’s has over 390,000.
But that’s just the tip of the Biden campaign’s social media concern. From mid-March to mid-April, posts about the president generated seven times more interactions (likes, comments and shares) than the former vice president on Facebook and Twitter, according to the monitoring service NewsWhip. Trump’s social media followers far exceed Biden’s — 77 million to 5 million on Twitter, 27 million to under 2 million on Facebook, and 19 million to under 2 million on Instagram.
Of course, Donald Trump devotes considerable time and effort to peppering his Twitter feed, and he has the power of the presidency behind him. Still, while Joe Biden has 5 million Twitter followers, recent rival Sen. Bernie Sanders has nearly 12 million and former President Obama has about 116 million.
Although Trump obsesses over his TV ratings and social media numbers, there’s no need for Biden to launch a Twitter war — but he does need to improve his social media presence. Fundraising, for instance, is tied directly to digital outreach. As of April 21, Trump and the GOP had $187 million more in donations than Biden and the DNC.
Organizing, which the Biden campaign struggled with during most of 2019, is also dependent on social media. It was clear to those of us who followed Biden across Iowa for months that his crowds were far smaller than those of, say, Sanders, whose relentless texting and emailing helped create huge turnout.
Then there’s basic messaging. One reason Mr. Trump dwells in the Twitterverse as much as he does is that it allows him to bypass news media and connect directly with supporters. Joe Biden doesn’t have enough of that clout, at least not yet, and the deficit is particularly crippling during the pandemic, when there are no live events.
The Biden camp hopes to level the playing field by utilizing tech veterans of the 2016 Trump campaign, led by Silicon Valley denizen James Barnes, who specializes in Facebook targeting. Barnes, once a Facebook employee, is credited with applying much of what the Obama campaign achieved with social media in 2012 to help elect Trump in 2016. Now, Barnes works on the Biden campaign.
To the extent that the Biden campaign is counting on Trump to self-destruct during the pandemic, as death counts rise and economic readouts fall, then keeping a low profile might not be a bad strategy. But at some point Biden’s team must step up its social media game if it hopes to generate adequate funds, enthusiasm and, ultimately, turnout.
Back to YouTube for a moment, where the Biden channel had anemic viewer totals with Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Al Gore. Notably, however, when the message is appealing, clicks do come. President Obama’s April 14 appearance on Joe Biden’s channel has so far logged over 2 million views.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.