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Is the equalization/normalization lens dead? Social media campaigning in US congressional elections

Jason Gainous (Department of Political Science, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA)
Andrew Segal (Department of Political Science, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA)
Kevin Wagner (Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, USA)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 15 August 2018

Issue publication date: 21 August 2018




Early information technology scholarship centered on the internet’s potential to be a democratizing force was often framed using an equalization/normalization lens arguing that either the internet was going to be an equalizing force bringing power to the masses, or it was going to be normalized into the existing power structure. The purpose of this paper is to argue that considered over time the equalization/normalization lens still sheds light on our understanding of how social media (SM) strategy can shape electoral success asking if SM are an equalizing force balancing the resource gap between candidates or are being normalized into the modern campaign.


SM metrics and electoral data were collected for US congressional candidates in 2012 and 2016. A series of additive and interactive models are employed to test whether the effects of SM reach on electoral success are conditional on levels of campaign spending.


The results suggest that those candidates who spend more actually get more utility for their SM campaign than those who spend less in 2012. However, by 2016, spending inversely correlates with SM campaign utility.

Research limitations/implications

The findings indicate that SM appeared to be normalizing into the modern congressional campaign in 2012. However, with higher rates of penetration and greater levels of usage in 2016, the SM campaign utility was not a result of higher spending. SM may be a greater equalizing force now.

Practical implications

Campaigns that initially integrate digital and traditional strategies increase the effectiveness of the SM campaign because the non-digital strategy both complements and draws attention to the SM campaign. However, by 2016 the SM campaign was not driven by its relation to traditional campaign spending.


This is the first large N study to examine the interactive effects of SM reach and campaign spending on electoral success.



Gainous, J., Segal, A. and Wagner, K. (2018), "Is the equalization/normalization lens dead? Social media campaigning in US congressional elections", Online Information Review, Vol. 42 No. 5, pp. 718-731.



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