Election 2016: How are the Candidates Using Instagram?

January 26, 2016

Written by NewsWhip

Instagram is booming and has huge potential for engagement – so how are Election 2016 candidates using it to engage with supporters?
Election 2016 is poised to kick off properly in Iowa next week. With this in mind, we’re expanding our coverage of the candidates’ activity on social.
Facebook remains the most prominent source of engagement for Democratic and Republican candidates, but with most active across multiple channels, we decided to take a look at how they fare on Instagram as well.
Instagram is one of the fastest-growing social channels out there – it hit 400 million users late last year and is projected to be a $5.3 billion business by 2017. A profile of that magnitude has obvious appeal for politicians, and with the platform’s potential for huge engagement, a good Instagram strategy can pay dividends.
We compiled data on Democrat and Republican candidates with a verified Instagram presence*. Analysing their activity over a 53-day period from 1st December 2015 to 22nd January 2016, here are some of the key insights.


Here are the leading candidates on Instagram for this period:
Ranking of Election 2016 candidates on Instagram December 2015 to January 2016
Matching his Facebook prowess, Donald Trump boasts the most engagement this period. His huge numbers place him some distance ahead of other candidates, as Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton vie for second and third with notably lower figures. Republicans Ben Carson and Marco Rubio round out the top five, themselves earning significantly less engagement than Sanders and Clinton.
By contrast with his relatively sparse posting on Facebook, Trump actually posted the most of any candidate during this period. His Instagram was updated 135 times, considerably more than the 47 posts uploaded by Sanders and the 53 added by both Clinton and Carson. Here’s how the top five candidates fare when ranked by average engagements:
Average engagements per Instagram post for the top 5 Election 2016 candidates on Instagram
While Trump has generated by far the most engagement overall, Sanders actually surpasses him for average interactions per post. This underlines the importance of focusing on quality over quantity, which helps to ensure a consistently engaged audience and greater success overall.


Instagram‘s content format may seem restrictive at first. Adapting messages for image and video can be challenging, especially when trying to impart complex or detailed messages. However, there is plenty of scope for candidates to take advantage of Instagram’s emphasis on visuals. Short-form video allows for clips from debates, events, and interviews to be uploaded, while campaign logos and slogans can be included in imagery to make feeds more distinctive.
Election 2016 candidates show some variety in their approaches to Instagram. Many have embraced the personalised feel of the platform and added several photos of family members. This gives the feed a distinctive feel; one which combines the intimacy of a family photo album with the structure of a traditional campaign. Videos are, generally, few and far between but used emphatically where they are deployed.
Here’s an overview of the key trends.
Private/family photos
One clear trend among the candidates is the use of family photos. Images of public figures with family members adds a sense of openness to a feed, making them seem more relatable and accessible to followers. The trend isn’t exclusive to Instagram – Hillary Clinton in particular has made ample use of this on Facebook – but the platform’s emphasis on visuals provides a more natural home for such photos, and allows followers to feel more closely connected to candidates.
This trend is doubly striking as almost every candidate embraced it. Admittedly, the period we looked at for this article took in the Christmas holidays, yet images from the candidates’ private lives weren’t confined to the festive season. Bernie Sanders’ photo of himself and his brother as children earned 38,575 interactions. The description makes reference to the financial difficulties faced by his family as well as his unlikely run for the presidency, cleverly linking the image to a key focus of his campaign: opportunity.

Hillary Clinton also generated big numbers from personal photos. Her biggest post for this period was a throwback photo of she and her husband celebrating Christmas in the White House. A similar photo was uploaded for New Year, with the two images combined earning 95,917 interactions.  

Happy New Year! A photo posted by Hillary Clinton (@hillaryclinton) on

These pictures have an obvious strategic element, subtly reminding users of her previous experience in the White House. (They also act as a throwback to a presidency which, despite its notoriety, ended with high approval ratings.)
It’s not just the Democratic frontrunners who have embraced this approach. Ben Carson’s top posts for this period included throwback several shots of himself and family members, and even Donald Trump earned over 73,000 interactions on a photo of himself with his granddaughter – his third biggest post for this period.
Unity and inclusivity
Many Election 2016 candidates posted photos of volunteers and supporters. This not only shows the candidate interacting directly with voters, but helps to align imagery with campaign sentiments and issues.
Sanders was particularly active in this regard. His biggest post for this period showed him speaking to a huge crowd in Alabama, with the description challenging that state’s conservative reputation. The photo was added on 19th January and earned almost 53,000 interactions in just a few days. Sanders also uploaded photos of volunteers and a gay couple, each explaining why they supported his campaign. These images stand apart from those posted by other candidates in that Sanders himself does not appear – the people depicted offer their own thoughts and opinions. This contributes to his campaign ethos of democratizing the movement.

Clinton’s Instagram takes a slightly different approach, yet one which also fosters a sense of unity. Some of her biggest posts for this period evince strong support for incumbent President Barack Obama. A photo uploaded immediately after the State of the Union address and showing solidarity with the President earned some 47,266 interactions in the course of a few days. A later photo praising Obama’s leadership over the course of his presidency drew an equally positive response. Among the Republicans, Marco Rubio actively posted candid photos. This shot of him holding a newspaper while en route to a rally is noteworthy – the headline is from a local paper, appealing to supporters in a key state, while the airport location highlights his campaign activity in the region.

  Great headline to see this morning before my rally in Ankeny, Iowa. Now off to Manchester, NH!   A photo posted by Marco Rubio For President (@marcorubiofla) on

This photo earned 6,867 interactions – a smaller figure than those earned by the bigger names, but by far Rubio’s most successful post for this period.
Video and uncompromising tactics
While some candidates took a more laid-back approach on Instagram, the high stakes of this time of year were also apparent. Many took an uncompromising and confrontational approach in their campaign imagery. Trump, whose campaign is no stranger to this approach, generated his biggest numbers for the month off a short video criticising President Obama’s focus on climate change.

What is Obama thinking?

A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

This video is reminiscent of Trump’s approach to Facebook video – short, heated, and related to a topical issue. Instagram provides similarly fertile ground for this style of video, and this piece earned 83,831 engagements during this period.
Sanders’ videos were equally succinct and fervent. This video, an outtake from a speech directed at one of America’s richest families, speaks to his favoured issue of income inequality and lets viewers know where he stands in no uncertain terms. Notably, Sanders also included a transcript of what is said in each video in their description. As Instagram videos tend to be short-form, there’s room to add this without taking up too much space, and it ensures that the posts are accessible even without sound. The tactic contributes much to Sanders’ success on Instagram, with the aforementioned video earning almost 37,000 engagements on the platform.


Instagram’s distinctive style presents challenges and opportunities for candidates. While it can be difficult to communicate complex information on a platform many enjoy for its simplicity, it has an inherent sentimentality which helps to humanise campaigns. The success of these candidates shows the huge potential for engagement; something we expect will increase as election season continues. Keep an eye out on the blog for a post comparing Facebook and Instagram engagement for political candidates.

What’s next?

1) Iowa is only days away. Sign up for a free Spike trial now and track key stories and trends in real time.
2) For more in-depth analysis of Election 2016 on social, why not sign up for our weekly newsletter?
*Note: Republican candidate Jim Gilmore does not have an official Instagram presence, and accordingly does not figure in this analysis. A data error meant reliable information on Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina’s pages could not be recovered, so these two candidates have been omitted from this piece.
Featured image via Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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