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Jeb Bush Is Playing Social Media Catch Up

Wilfredo Lee / AP

Jeb Bush has done more than any other potential presidential candidate in recent weeks to signify a possible candidacy. He quit his corporate boards, formed a political action committee and began commenting on topical news events - age-old requirements for presidential politics.

In addition, the two-time former Florida governor has also done what any modern-day politician must do – he expanded his social media footprint. He joined Instagram and he became a tad more creative with his posts. His announcement on the creation of his new PAC featured a short, casual video of him walking down a city street describing his plan.

Bush's expanded foray into the black hole of social media sites is completely necessary, but it also reveals that the potential presidential candidate has a lot of work to do to run a modern day campaign. (And not only because he shot the video vertically instead of horizontally, a format preferable for viewing.)

Should he run, Bush is entering into a completely different landscape than the last time he ran a campaign in 2002. At the time, emailing from your mobile phone from an innovative device called a Blackberry was among the most technically savvy tools out there. Now, social media is a critical component of any campaign that experts say will be more important in 2016 than ever before.

More voters are following politics online. According to Pew Research's Internet Project, 16 percent of voters followed political candidates through social media in the 2014 election, which is a rapid increase from the midterms just four years ago when only six percent of voters engaged with candidates through social media.

While Bush’s spokesperson refused requests to discuss his social media strategy, it is obvious that he’s upping his game. Bush’s increased activity around a potential presidential bid correlates nicely with an increase in his social media activity. The infrequent Facebook poster increased his output in the spring and really ramped up in the late summer when he hopped on the campaign trail for midterm electoral candidates.

John Allen Hendricks, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas and co-author of Presidential Campaigning and Social Media, said Bush must do more than post to Facebook and Twitter to run a successful social media campaign. Campaigns, he said, must tap into the tool's vast potential.

"(Candidates) better go to where these voters are and that’s most definitely social media and other cutting-edge and fast emerging digital media platforms,” Hendricks said, talking especially about Millennials.

In addition to simply connecting with potential voters, social media campaigns are used to get out the vote and raise money, which is the real battle of social media.

The Funding Game

Keith Kincaid, a digital media campaign veteran at SKDKnickerbocker, put it this way: "You want to be seen as someone who is skillful or at the very least you don’t want to be seen as a dinosaur. Then there’s the actual functional piece of social media that Obama did better than everyone" And that's getting people to donate.

In 2012, President Barack Obama raised $690 million online, nearly 70 percent of the money he raised.

The Data Project

“What made Obama extremely successful in 2008 and, especially in 2012, was his campaign’s ability to see the importance of data and then drill down and look closely at what those data revealed,” Hendricks said.

The Obama campaign knew preferences of voters down to minute ideological and demographic detail, which enabled the campaign to know how to persuade you to vote.

Bush began that process this week through the creation of his Right to Rise PAC. In addition to the standard email address and zip code, supporters are prompted to give their Instagram username.

Other than the fact that Instagram is second only to Facebook in users, Kincaid thought Bush's decision to focus on Instagram is because of the demographic to which it caters: overwhelmingly younger and female.

Perhaps “he thinks that is an area that he needs to either do well or where he thinks he has an advantage,” Kincaid said.

In addition, while Bush is far behind some of his potential competitors on some social media sites like Facebook, where Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has 1.8 million followers compared to Bush's 140,000, no candidate is very competitive on the photo and video sharing site.

He’s off to a decent start. Twenty-four hours after he announced his PAC and joined Instagram, his followers grew to 3970 and counting.

The Competition

Paul, Hendricks notes, "has been fairly savvy with his digital media strategy."

Bush's most established potential competitor on social media is Paul. He has spent the last several years building a following and his posts are engaging. He gives his positions and challenges opponents, including a recent spat he started with potential rival Sen. Marco Rubio over Cuba policy. He also created a meme about Hillary Clinton called #HillaryLosers that points out all the losing midterm candidates that she supported.

Perhaps most importantly for campaign purposes, he asks his followers to sign petitions or donate to his political action committee; both actions require supporters to enter significant amounts of information about them that add to his outreach list.

Sergio Gor, spokesman for RAND PAC, Paul's political action committee, said social media is a "top priority."

"There is no better way to connect with younger people than through social media," Gor added.

Paul also beat Bush on social media on a critical day, Hendricks said. Bush announced his plans to “actively explore” the presidency. Hendricks said Paul’s team purchased online Google ads that would slam Bush’s record and also show Rand Paul ads when people searched Jeb Bush.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has no Instagram account and is not very active on social media. But she has a built in infrastructure as shadow organizations, including Ready For Hillary, has amassed a hefty digital presence. In addition, Clinton likely learned from from her mistakes in 2008 while running against a candidate who ran laps around her digitally. And if she didn't learn, at least some of Obama's digital brain children are likely to work for her, should she run.

Regardless of how the potential field looks now, Kincaid said it's still early and any candidate has the time to catch up.

"The question is who’s the candidate who’s trying new things and and who’s going to be the leader. Presidential campaigns are usually where new ground is broken," he said.

That slot is still wide open.