What explains Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s surge in the polls? Pundits have put forth a wide range of theories, but the answer may be as close as our pockets. It’s a sign of the power of the smartphone.
The 2016 presidential election will be the first in which the majority of voters own a smartphone: 64 percent of American adults, compared to 35 percent in 2011. A Pew Research study this spring found that Americans spend more time on their smartphones than watching TV, and that most now use smartphones as their primary source for news.
The last time this kind of technological shift occurred, it had a profound effect on the electoral process. In the decade leading up to the 1960 election, the percentage of American households with a television jumped from 11 to 88. John F. Kennedy took advantage of this shift in the first televised presidential debate: Famously, those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while those who watched on television favored the more dashing Kennedy.
Many successful candidates have been similarly suited to the media of their times. As Neil Postman argued in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Abraham Lincoln’s knack for complex rhetoric and lengthy retorts played beautifully in long, live political debates but would have had less value on radio or TV.
So which political qualities play best on the smartphone?
The smartphone differs from other visual media because each piece of content competes with its neighbors: Modern smartphones span only a few inches, but tend to display a whole jumble of words and images at once. The screen is a battleground where friends, celebrities, news organizations, and advertisers use whatever tactics they can to grab our limited attention.
And cutting through the clutter is only half the fight. Readers usually spend drastically less time per item, and recall less about what they read, than they would on other media. Studies show that, on average, people read 20 percent more slowly on screens than they do on paper. Perhaps to compensate, they are far more likely to skim electronic texts, performing what is known as F-pattern scanning. They read the beginning, scan down the page, read a little less, and then scan down to the bottom of the page.
This plays to the advantage of Trump and Sanders. Since they occupy the extreme ends of the political spectrum, their opinions are understandable and distinct. Sanders’ call for “free college” and Trump’s plan to “build a wall” around the US border stand out on a news feed, making people more likely to read them — and news sources more likely to write about them.
And Sanders’ and Trump’s constant streams of incendiary comments feed the ever-growing demand for smartphone content. Whenever Trump makes a racially charged comment or Sanders delivers a sardonic quip against big banks, social media go freshly abuzz. The constant coverage magnifies the perceived importance (and potential actual success) of these candidates in the public eye. In contrast, the calculated comments of political heavyweights like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are rarely spicy enough to garner social media attention.
Finally, the rise of the smartphone may help Trump and Sanders avoid some of the pitfalls they would have faced in a television-dominated era. Trump has his infamous hairpiece; Sanders is 73. The four-inch smartphone screen treats each more kindly than a high-definition, 60-inch TV.
No one knows how Trump’s and Sanders’ campaigns will play out, but their success thus far could change the way all politicians present themselves. With all eyes on these two, the Washington playbook is being rewritten, with the smartphone the new star player.