Election countdown: Instagram’s role in visualizing the 2020 campaign

The photo-sharing app, Instagram, has become the hottest place to learn about the 2020 campaigns, offering a visual connection between candidates and potential voters. As of October 2020, Instagram boasted 140 million active U.S. users, with young people mainly engaged on the platform. To reach and interact with this population, the 2020 presidential primary candidates employed Instagram to increase their visibility and garner engagement. A robust and organic reach is built upon a steady flow of engagement on Instagram, particularly likes and comments. Therefore, understanding the types of posts or messaging that not only are used but also enhance engagement during a campaign period is essential.

Between December and February 2020, a look at the Instagram posts among the remaining Democratic candidates, Biden, Gabbard, Sanders and Warren, and the Republican incumbent, Trump, revealed three widely used messaging strategies: informational (i.e., posts discussing a candidates platform or educating the consumer); transformational (i.e., posts that evoke a sense of emotion, identify to the core identity of the brand, campaign events, and social issues); and interactional (i.e., posts about current events, personal posts with friends or family, creation of a sense of community, voter relation, and mobilizing posts).

Interactional posts, specifically Instagram posts about current events, garnered the largest number of likes. For example, in January 2020, Warren’s timely post on the assassination of Soleimani received over 60,000 likes and Sander’s post on the high cost of insulin snagged over 150,000 likes. Informational posts that educate and inform, such as posts illustrating recent polling results, also garnered more likes than other informational strategies, such as posts about a candidate’s platform or policy agenda. Interestingly, interactional posts on Instagram that focused on mobilizing, get-out-the-vote, and donations did not solicit a high number of likes. For instance, Gabbard’s picture of her with a group of supporters, along with a fundraising goal (and a “donate now” button) collected about 8,000 likes. The most “commented on” Instagram posts were interactional, specifically personal posts and current event posts. Biden’s vintage family photo of him as a single parent of two boys collected over 3,500 comments, and Trump’s post of him playing golf for a little exercise exceeded 35,000 comments. Candidates who Instagrammed about current events (i.e., interactional) and educational posts (i.e., informational) also were rewarded with more commentary. The least commented on posts covered the candidate’s platform (i.e. informational) and social issues. To summarize the 2020 primary campaign on Instagram, candidates’ interactional posts – current events and personal pictures – elicited the most engagement. Yet, what types of posts were used in the lead up to the November 3rd general election and which posts had the highest levels of engagement? Did Biden and Trump differ in their countdown approaches?

A comparison of the presidential candidates Instagram accounts a week prior to the November 3rd election revealed very different communication strategies. Most of Trump’s posts were primarily coded as experiential (i.e. transformational) and brand community (i.e. interactional). More specifically, his posts predominately focused on him speaking to large crowds and thanking them. Engagement rates for these types of posts ranged from approximately 400,000-800,000 likes. There were a number of notable posts that deviated from focusing solely on crowds that received large engagement numbers. Several posts had high production levels that mimiced formulistic movie trailers (i.e. soaring or mixed music, professional narration, and aerial perspectives). The content contained within these videos highlighted Trump’s community of supporters, his achievements and American landscapes, as well as a “dystopian-like” world that a Biden administration would bring. These posts were coded as emotional (i.e. transformational) and educational (i.e. informational) received engagement rates of 2.2 and 2.3 million. The most popular Trump posts included him dancing on stage with supporters to YMCA (4.7 million views) and video of the Biden bus being surrounded by Trump supporters on a Texas highway (3.7 million views). Lastly, mobilization efforts were limited to reminding people to vote and played a secondary role in the account compared to the focus on large campaign events.

In contrast, the Biden campaign communicated a much more diverse range of post content/types and varied in their aesthetic approach. Unlike the Trump campaign, mobilization (i.e. interactional) was the primary focus in the election countdown. These posts ranged from creative ways to spell out “vote” through food to detailed voting information (i.e. last day to vote early). While mobilization was the most popular type of post, the Biden campaign, with some exceptions, had a variety of content that touched upon most of the typology categories. The exception to this, was experiential posts – there were few posts that included crowds. Biden’s most popular posts included an emotion/voter relations video that summarized an interaction between Biden and a little boy (i.e. 2.1 million views), an educational video summarizing Trump’s bankruptcies (i.e. 1.85 million views) and humor/emotion video that had Mark Hamill reacting to Trump (i.e. 1.9 million views).

With the announcement of Biden’s win on November 7th, we can now examine how candidates use Instagram when entering a new office as well as say farewell to devoted and faithful supporters during a post-election period.