America Rising Founder: Social Media Fuels Populism

Former Mitt Romney campaign manager and GSPM alumnus discusses media tools.

Matt Rhoades, Mark Kennedy
America Rising Founder and former Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades, left, discusses political strategy alongside GSPM Director Mark Kennedy. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
February 19, 2016

By James Irwin

When Matt Rhoades, M.A. '99, launched the opposition research political action committee America Rising in March 2013, the organization didn’t have a website. It had a Tumblr page and a batch of video clips.

“We actually didn’t have a real site for the first four, five, maybe six months,” Mr. Rhoades said Tuesday at a Student Association seminar hosted by the Graduate School of Political Management. “But within a few days of us setting up the organization, we had posted a video about Hillary Clinton and Benghazi that cost us nothing to make and ended up on ABC World News Tonight.

“That’s the power of social media.”

Speaking at an event that resembled a graduate school seminar, Mr. Rhoades and GSPM Director Mark Kennedy discussed campaign strategy and media tactics for more than an hour with a group of aspiring politicos, some of whom could be on the ballot when SA elections are held March 9 and 10.

“My two elected offices are student senate and the U.S. Congress,” said Mr. Kennedy, a former three-term U.S. representative from Minnesota. “So you’re on a very noble track if you’re thinking of running for student government.”

Sydney Eskin, who is running for School of Engineering and Applied Science senate seat, asks a question during Tuesday's seminar. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

He and Mr. Rhoades spoke Tuesday about how social media has leveled the playing field in politics.

“A lot of you will go on to manage campaigns, maybe at the state or local level to start,” Mr. Rhoades said. “Social media is a huge part of a campaign. You are seeing this in the presidential primary where some of these candidates who have spent all this money, especially on television commercials, are finishing further and further back in the field. It’s pretty amazing what social media has done.”

He has been an active player in the media shift, serving as director of communications for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2008 and as Mr. Romney’s campaign manager in 2012.

The environment has changed quite a bit in the eight years since that first Romney attempt, he said. Twitter and YouTube have emerged as key campaign tools. Open-source Wikipedia is more important for a candidate’s biography than the candidate’s own website. Medium, a blog-publishing site, is “taking over the world of op-eds,” Mr. Rhoades said.

“It helps fuel populism,” he said. “That’s the positive side of social media.”

There also is a negative side, he said.

“I have a lot of friends working for various campaigns right now,” Mr. Rhoades said. “They hate each other. We have candidates running for the highest office in America trolling each other on social media. That’s what social media also has given us. So there are negatives.”

Donald Trump is perhaps the best example of this online populist reality, he and Mr. Kennedy said. The media magnet dominates a given day’s news coverage just by what he tweets. There is a popular opinion that mainstream media is fueling Mr. Trump’s campaign by giving him more coverage, Mr. Kennedy said. But GW’s Public Echoes Of Rhetoric In America (PEORIA) Project, which seeks to quantify how voters react to campaign messages, says it’s social media, not traditional media, that sustains Mr. Trump’s popularity.

“Everyone is blaming the mainstream media for giving Trump his popularity,” Mr. Kennedy said. “And yet he’s getting more mentions on social media than in mainstream media. The mainstream media arguably isn’t giving him the same share of attention relative to what he’s getting on social media.”


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