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The new game of politics – Why social media is so important on the campaign trail

The Illinois gubernatorial election is coming up in November of this year. But if you ask many people in the Metro East or downstate Illinois, it certainly doesn’t seem like it. Politicians used to come to the small communities in downstate as part of their election barnstorming. But this year, the top candidates have spent very little time in southern Illinois.

Part of the reason is the power of Chicago politics. The other parts taking the blame range from social media to advertising dollars, and even the diminished power of traditional forms of media like TV and newspapers. Republican consultant John Hancock says what we are seeing is not unique to this campaign, nor is it unique to Illinois.

“It’s not just here, it’s all over the country,” says Hancock. “We see politicians increasingly turning to social media as their outlet to communicate with the public.”

That’s because social media advertising is inexpensive and you can target people in particular communities and with particular beliefs. And when it comes to getting out the vote, that is exactly what you need.

The other aspect at play is being able to control your message. More politicians are finding themselves on the wrong end of a speaking gaffe that can haunt you the entire campaign or derail your campaign completely. Michael Kelley of The Kelley Group consulting firm says the evidence for what can happen when you go off script has been apparent here in the past.

“If you get an inexperienced candidate who doesn’t have control of their own message, doesn’t have the experience of dealing with the media, then they could say something that is fatal to their campaign, and that’s what happened to Todd Akin,” Kelley says.

Akin’s campaign was derailed after an interview on Fox 2 several years ago that went viral when he made the claim that women’s bodies could protect themselves against legitimate rape.

He said, back in 2012, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”

Akin says the quote was taken out of context for political purposes, but the damage had already been done.

So by not holding press conferences and town hall meetings, politicians can sidestep those gaffes. Gregory Magarian, a Washington University Law School professor who specializes in social media and politics, says this type of campaign makes sense.

“The candidate has a message and a perfect form that he or she would like to get out to the electorate, and they want that to be as controlled as possible,” says Magarian. “Even if the press is not doing a good job asking questions, they are making the candidate go through another layer of communication and another hurdle in getting their message to the voters.”

“So from a candidate standpoint, why take the time to answer questions when it might take away from the message you have carefully crafted?”

The other big factor in the lack of public appearances in Southern Illinois goes back to the Chicago-factor. There are millions of voters inside the small area known as Chicagoland, and far fewer south of Springfield, so it only makes sense to stay where the biggest numbers are.

“That’s the reality of politics,” says Kelley. “You go where the votes are. And the most votes that exist are in Chicago.”

That is likely why the campaigns have not returned our messages asking for interviews. One Illinois political consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me that a candidate who actually win the election by just maximizing the Chicago voter.

He went on to explain that it’s a waste of time, money, and resources to visit every little town downstate when you could easily see thousands of people in one Chicago suburb in an afternoon.

“You certainly can’t blame them, can you?” he says.

The one things that could come back to haunt the candidates is not developing relationships with the press corps during the campaign because they will certainly need a few media allies once they get into office. Hancock says he has seen this bad scenario play out several times in the past.

“Somebody, at some point, will say something about you that isn’t true,” he says. “And if you don’t have a relationship with someone in the media to get your message out, it’s going to be a problem.”

That is part of the problem Governor Eric Greitens is now facing in his multiple investigations because he and his team have a history of not being communicative with the press.

“In Greitens’ case, they have to chase him down the hall with questions that he doesn’t answer,” claims Hancock. “That’s just a bad optic. And when you get to that point, you are really doing damage to your brand.”

In the end, it will likely fall to voters to force the candidates to be more personally engaging. Magarian says the best-case scenario is for political campaigns to be active on social media to get out their message, while also taking more questions to show they are competent and experienced enough for the job.

“I think an ideal state for the electorate is a mix of easy access to what candidates want to put out there, and a vigorous media trying to throw some stones in the pathway of the candidates’ perfect message.”

Hancock agrees, saying this will only change when you start to see the strategy fail on election day.

“It’s certainly trendy, but if you begin to see the politicians begin to pay the price at the polls, then you’ll start to see the behavior change,” he says.