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Status Update: I’m Running for President

When did presidential campaign announcements go from mega-events to Facebook posts?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

After nearly a year of speculation over whether he would challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Jim Webb finally threw his hat in the ring last week in the most understated way possible: with a Facebook status update.

 “Dear friends: After many months of thought, deliberation and discussion, I have decided to seek the office of the Presidency of the United States,” he wrote in a post published last Thursday at 11:43 a.m., just as the Internet was checking out for the long holiday weekend.

“Jim simply wrote a letter to supporters, which we posted on Facebook,” Webb’s communications director Craig Crawford said in an email, when asked about the curious timing. “That was simply the day he finished writing what he wanted to say to supporters, once he had made his decision."

It was almost as if Webb didn’t want anyone to notice he was running. Instead of demanding attention, Webb’s announcement took on the quality of an end-of-the-week news dump.

This is a far cry from the pomp and circumstance that typically accompanies the kickoff of a presidential campaign. In 2007, Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois to address a crowd of 16,000 people, who stood in freezing temperatures for the chance to chant his name and be a part of history. Bill Clinton’s 1991 announcement similarly took on the quality of a polished photo-op. He gave a speech to a crowd of supporters in Little Rock, Arkansas, surrounded by his family and American flags. Ronald Reagan, ever the entertainer, broadcast a half-hour speech to a national TV audience.

A presidential announcement is “a carefully crafted moment of political stagecraft,” MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry noted on her show this past March. “The timing, the location, the backdrop, the audience, the words, all of it is carefully selected for maximum impact.”

As Crawford suggested, Webb may not have thought too long or hard about the symbolism of his own announcement. “Webb’s always been unconventional and done things his way,” Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who’s worked on a number of presidential campaigns, told me.

And yet a close reading hints at a certain amount of strategy on the part of the former senator.  

“I know that more than one candidate in this process intends to raise at least a billion dollars–some estimates run as high as two billion dollars–in direct and indirect financial support,” Webb wrote at the top of his announcement, taking a not-very-veiled shot at Hillary Clinton. “Highly paid political consultants are working to shape the 'messaging' of every major candidate.”

The implicit message here is clear: Clinton is an artificial product of the political machine, whereas Webb is the authentic, no-nonsense, straight-shooting underdog.

“I mean what I say,” Webb vowed in his announcement. “If I make a promise I will keep it.”

Clinton, of course, has recognized the dangers of appearing inevitable and has worked to downplay her own frontrunner status. When she finally, officially announced her presidential campaign in April, she did so with a video that put the spotlight on the plight of everyday Americans, rather than herself. And her campaign has pointed to Senator Bernie Sanders's popularity as proof that the Democratic primary will be competitive.

“We are worried about him, sure. He will be a serious force for the campaign, and I don’t think that will diminish,” Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, said of Sanders on Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Unlike Webb, Sanders aimed higher with his entry into the field. As the only other Democratic candidate besides Clinton capable of drawing the kind of energy and crowds to warrant big rallies, Sanders fashioned his launch as a music festival, which featured a dance band and Ben & Jerry’s in scenic Burlington, Vermont.

But in the age of social media, campaigns don’t necessarily need to stage a big event in order to get traction. The day that Clinton officially launched her campaign, she also joined Facebook, and within hours her announcement video had racked up over one million views. On the campaign trail, candidates have been spending hours taking selfies with fans—mementos that will inevitably be posted and shared to Facebook and Instagram.

“This is something that campaigns should embrace and be very happy with, because it’s just free advertising,” Rand Paul’s chief digital strategist, Vincent Harris, told The New York Times.

If Webb’s goal was to go viral, though, he has a ways to go before he catches up with Clinton. So far, his announcement on Facebook has just 3,168 Likes and 1,351 shares.

Ultimately, Trippi noted, the timing of Webb’s decision may have been unfortunate. “I think he announced while everyone was on vacation,” Trippi said. “That’s very Jim Webb.”