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Hillary Clinton with the “presidential selfie girls” in New Hampshire

CREDIT: Courtesy Emerson Nozell

The Selfie Election

Selfies and social media are changing the way candidates campaign for president

As soon as Hillary Clinton stepped down from the podium at a recent Democratic fund-raiser in Little Rock, Arkansas, Charles Jones sprinted toward her, phone in hand. The 17-yearold high school senior from Benton, Arkansas, made his way through the crowd and asked her for a selfie.

“Well, of course!” Clinton replied. Jones quickly posted it on Twitter and Facebook, unleashing a chain of retweets, favorites, comments, and shares. “It brought a little refresher of popularity to me,” he says.

Jones is hardly the only one posting a selfie with a presidential candidate to social media. Where voters once settled for a handshake or an autograph on their yard signs, today they wait in line for hours to snap a quick selfie—the must-have souvenir of the 2016 election. And with five months left before voters begin weighing in at the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in February, candidates have little choice but to submit to the ritual. 

"It’s a cultural trend,” says Brian Donahue, CEO of a political communications firm. “Presidential candidates who want to communicate that they’re in touch and know what’s going on culturally—especially among millennials—need to show that they get it. Selfies are an easy way to do that.”

CREDITS: Win McNamee/Getty Images (Sanders); Ron Haviv/VII/Corbis (Trump); Chuck Burton/AP Images (Rubio); Andrew Burton/Getty Images (Christie); Chris Keane/Reuters (Cruz); Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Walker)

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Candidates can now spend an hour—or sometimes two, as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently did in New Hampshire—exhausting a line of eager selfie seekers. Others, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have learned to add an extra 20 minutes at the start and end of events because so many want pictures.

But that’s not necessarily a waste of time. With social media playing a bigger role now than in previous elections, many campaigns are learning to use selfies to their advantage. When shared on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, selfies can exponentially increase a candidate’s visibility—especially among young voters—and at no cost.

“This is something that campaigns should embrace and be very happy with, because it’s just free advertising,” says Vincent Harris, Paul’s chief digital strategist. The Paul campaign sees a branding opportunity in selfies. When people line up for photos, campaign aides often erect a backdrop with a “Rand” logo on it for people to pose in front of.

But as campaigns adjust to a social media world, some political experts wonder whether more meaningful voter-candidate interactions are suffering. When candidates oblige so many people, sometimes agreeing to multiple takes to square a double chin or get a pesky photo bomber out of the frame, are they losing the chance to clarify a policy position, listen to concerns, or even just look a voter in the eye?

“It’s self-serving, and the candidate is kind of screwed,” says Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “They have to put up with it, because how do you decipher who is a fan and who wants to fill their profile with pictures of them with candidates?”

Indeed, it’s not always clear whether the people asking for photos even like or plan to vote for the candidate they’re posing with. Take Angelika Noel, an 18-yearold freshman at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who took a selfie with Rand Paul in April 2014, when he spoke at her high school. She doesn’t plan to vote for Paul, but she asked for the selfie because her history teacher said it’d be impossible for her to get one. 

“It was more of a bet,” Noel says.

Then again, that five-second selfie could translate into a vote someday. Addy and Emma Nozel, teenage sisters from Merrimack, New Hampshire, who have styled themselves the “presidential selfie girls,” are taking a selfie with every candidate and posting it on Twitter. Addy, 17, and Emma, 15, have become so popular that candidates arriving in their state are ready to take a selfie with them

‘Please Stop’

But the Nozel sisters don’t go to political events just to pose with presidential prospects. Addy, who will be old enough to vote in the elections, says they actually listen to what the candidates have to say. 

Not all candidates, however, care to oblige. “Please stop,” wrote Ben Carson, who’s running for the Republican nomination, in a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post. Selfies are not only narcissistic, but also dangerous, he wrote, citing examples of how inattentive selfie-takers had died in the process— falling off a cliff in Portugal, for example.

Former president Bill Clinton has complained that he’s inundated with requests whenever he goes out. At an event last year with former president George W. Bush, Clinton observed that even eating out had become a challenge—to which Bush joked: “At least they’re still asking.”

Even voters who embrace selfies can be slightly conflicted. Just take Lincoln Boyd, 22, who sneaked up to the stage at a recent conservative gathering in Maryland and took a selfie with Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Boyd, who plans to vote Republican, says he would have preferred to ask Rubio some questions about the immigration reform that’s stalled in Washington. But, he added, “there’s a time and a place for that.”

“We’re millennials,” Boyd says. “It’s the 21st century, and if I’m with the candidate and I can get a quick picture with him, I’m going to do that.”

With reporting by Jeremy Peters, Ashley Parker, and Nick Corasaniti of the Times.

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