Onstage in front of California Democrats during the first weekend in June, Bernie Sanders warned that there is “no middle ground” on issues such as abortion and health care, taking a thinly veiled swipe at fellow presidential candidate Joe Biden. Soon after, Sanders’s campaign and online grassroots supporters, including ones in a behind-the-scenes Slack group devoted to his support, began to spread a #NoMiddleGround hashtag across the internet, and it started trending. By Monday, volunteers in that Slack channel had created a “No Middle Ground” Facebook group, complete with custom graphics, which they used to spread his message even further.
It’s an example of the power of Sanders’s online edge — one we’ll see more of as the 2020 presidential contest rolls on.
Sanders may have lost the Democratic nomination in 2016, but his campaign’s online savvy was on par with that of Donald Trump, who harnessed populist support on social media (not to mention an assist from Russia) to help catapult himself to the White House.
The 2016 election was a lesson in how much the internet matters in modern politics. “The bottom line is that you can’t win with just digital, but you can’t win without it,” Alan Rosenblatt, director of digital research at the Democratic strategy firm Lake Research Partners, told Recode.
Now, as a crowded field of Democratic contenders competes for the 2020 nomination, Sanders is back, and so is a new and improved version of his digital army.
Among his fellow 2020 Democratic contenders, Sanders is likely the best positioned to take on Trump in the digital realm. One advantage is his enviable email list built up in 2016, which helped him raise more than $18 million in the first six weeks of his 2020 campaign and sign up 1 million volunteers. The Sanders camp is also leaning heavily into streaming video and other online mediums, and he’s hiring volunteers who proved their skills during his previous run.
And as demonstrated with the #NoMiddleGround effort in June, Sanders still has an army of volunteer supporters who spend their time promoting his campaign everywhere — on Facebook and Twitter, on Reddit, through Slack, and, of course, on the ground.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel this time,” David Fredrick, who co-created the influential Sanders for President subreddit in 2013, told Recode. In 2016, the subreddit raised $2.3 million in direct donations for Sanders; when you account for donors who started from a Reddit-sourced link, that amount jumps to $13 million.
The Sanders Slack group, where his army makes plans
One powerful grassroots organizing tool behind Sanders’s 2020 run is a Connect With Bernie Slack group, where power players and ultra-devoted volunteers make plans, get stuff done, and track the latest developments of the campaign.
It’s a revival from 2016, and while it had about 8,000 members then, it has 300 people after moderators deleted and reopened it. Some members are regular Bernie supporters; others are administrators of relatively prominent pro-Sanders social media properties, including People for Bernie, Digital Left, Silvers for Sanders, and the Sanders for President subreddit. Its moderators — Amanda Robertson, a former public school teacher from South Carolina, and Teri Gidwitz, a digital marketer from Chicago — are volunteers and aren’t officially affiliated with the Sanders campaign. Though some official reps from the campaign are in the Slack group, they’re not leading it.
Members share news stories about Sanders, and each day, the moderators announce his speeches and schedule, like his attendance at the Walmart shareholders meeting in June. They also encourage members to take specific actions, such as responding to a New York Times call for reader letters about their favorite candidates.
In one room, members share screenshots of their “points” accumulated on the BERN app, an organizing tool from the campaign, to show how much they’ve spread the pro-Sanders word. Some members are designers and creators, so they request and share custom campaign graphics. One room offers Spanish translations, and there are state-specific groups. Tweets from Sanders and speechwriter David Sirota post automatically.
The idea is to amplify the campaign’s efforts, spread positive stories and information about Sanders, and activate supporters. “Our ultimate goal is to get Bernie elected,” Gidwitz said.
Bernie Sanders’s 2020 online plan, explained
For Sanders’s second presidential run, his official campaign has hired some key volunteers and media experts who worked online to help propel his 2016 bid forward.
“Instead of telling people what they can do for Bernie grassroots, they’re telling people: here’s a job application,” Adriel Hampton, a progressive political strategist, told Recode.
For 2020, these hires are taking a multi-pronged approach: with video streaming, apps, email fundraising, podcasting, and social media groups.
Sanders is particularly focused on reaching existing and potential supporters by publishing and live-streaming videos. He has recruited employees such as Armand Aviram, Mia Fermindoza, and Tahseen Rabbi from the progressive media company and viral video shop NowThis News. NowThis is known for creating provocative political videos meant to inspire, inform, and sometimes outrage viewers. Aviram in 2017 described Sanders as “viral gold” in an interview with Salon — and the campaign is trying to combine that with the NowThis style to create more attention-grabbing content.
Video is “something that’s been part of Bernie’s entire career,” Josh Miller-Lewis, the digital communications director for the Sanders campaign, said. He pointed to the videos Sanders created in the 1980s as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, that surfaced in May on Politico and The Daily Show. “What we’re doing now sort of follows that same instinct of his, to talk about issues that may not be covered by the mainstream media and to give a voice to people who don’t otherwise have a voice.”
On June 27, the day Sanders participated in the first round of Democratic debates, the Sanders campaign launched a Twitch channel. It’s also doing a recurring a “Bernie TV”-style rollout of live videos on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube, in which Sanders and staffers discuss the news of the day and provide campaign updates. They campaign has dubbed the show “The 99.”
“We’re moving toward doing a lot more live content on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook, tapping into an audience where there’s not a lot of political content already,” Miller-Lewis said. He said Sanders’s video push is an attempt to emphasize the “Not me, us,” mantra of his campaign.
In addition, because of his already built-up voter email list, Sanders is poised to once again raise millions and recruit hundreds of thousands of volunteers. In April, he used these ranks of subscribers to set up thousands of organizing parties for his campaign.
Beyond email, Sanders’s campaign has released the BERN app, currently only for desktop, an organizing tool that lets supporters look up voters they know and track their potential support and information. The point is to help supporters spread the word about Sanders and relay information to the campaign. (Some people have complained that the app feels a bit invasive and creepy, though it’s using data that is mostly publicly available.)
The campaign also has a podcast, Hear the Bern, hosted by Sanders campaign national press secretary and former Intercept editor Briahna Joy Gray. (Of course, Sanders isn’t the first candidate to come up with the idea — Hillary Clinton had a podcast, With Her, in 2016.)
The People for Bernie Sanders, an online group that backed his 2016 bid, continues to spread pro-Sanders messaging online. Over the past three months, it has generated 4.8 million interactions on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle. To give you a sense of the reach, during that same period, Vox had 2.8 million Facebook interactions. (Winnie Wong, one of the volunteer founders of People for Bernie, is now a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign.)
Millennials for Bernie, another pro-Bernie Facebook group, is also back up and running, as are multiple other pro-Sanders Facebook and Twitter accounts. And there’s the Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash, a Facebook group with about 400,000 members that’s a home for, as its name suggests, Sanders memes.
Some groups are still figuring out exactly how to support Sanders in 2020, meaning it’s not clear what they plan to do, or how effective they will be.
Our Revolution, the political action organization that spun out of his 2016 bid and also inherited his email list, is in a “state of transition,” David Duhalde, its political director, said. Democratic Socialists of America, which has voted to endorse Sanders, is backing him with an independent expenditure arm. Because both groups are so decentralized, strategies for backing Sanders online and off can vary across chapters.
“There’s a constant conflict in local organizations between individuals and the parent organization, and both DSA and Our Revolution constantly struggle with that,” Brett Banditelli, a digital strategist and volunteer for People for Bernie, said.
The Sanders for President subreddit, which birthed volunteer-led websites such as FeelTheBern.org and VoteforBernie.org in 2016, is open and fundraising again after moderators shuttered it when Sanders lost the nomination in 2016. It has about 260,000 members, and in this cycle, it has already raised more than $150,000. On June 19, Sanders took part in an Ask Me Anything session on the subreddit, an indication that his campaign is well aware of the importance the digital groups still have.
“Some of the grassroots love that we had in 2016 has become more of an official campaign tool, and a lot of the people who had previously been volunteers now work for the campaign or work for companies that now work for the campaign,” Fredrick, who is still one of the subreddit’s moderators, said.
That doesn’t just mean they’re working for Sanders. The digital strategy group Middle Seat, which is working for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, was founded by former Sanders campaign aides, and it has absorbed some of Sanders’s digital grassroots supporters, including co-founders of Millennials for Bernie and the subreddit.
Sanders is good at preaching to the choir. But he also has to expand his base — and compete with several other Democrats.
By some metrics, Sanders is outpacing other 2020 Democratic contenders. He has had more organic interactions on Facebook in the past three months than the other seven following Democratic candidates combined, and he has had three times more video views on Facebook than any other candidate. He’s also picking up steam on Instagram, where he has about two times as many interactions as any of the other candidates, according to his campaign. Many of the groups supporting him online were able to pick up where they left off last time around — or they never stopped in the first place.
That’s not to say he’s ahead everywhere. Biden is outpacing Sanders in the discussion on Twitter by millions of impressions, Rosenblatt, from Lake Research Partners, said. (Other Democrats are far behind Biden and Sanders on Twitter.) Not all of the conversation about Biden is good — between Trump supporters attacking him and the heat he’s facing from the left, a lot of it isn’t. But that doesn’t necessarily matter.
“The more people are talking about a candidate, the more it benefits the candidate, and so far, that’s sort of been irrespective of positive or negative,” Rosenblatt said.
Biden is also outspending Sanders on Facebook ads, and he has former President Barack Obama’s email list, which, while outdated, is still highly coveted.
Other rivals are finding novel ways to drum up digital support. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign and voters are posting on social media about her surprise phone calls to supporters, turning the concept into a meme. Pete Buttigieg has released a design toolkit for grassroots supporters to create their own campaign gear. Beto O’Rourke, who has since struggled in the polls, actually outraised Sanders within the first 24 hours of his campaign launch, thanks to the momentum — and email list — from his Senate campaign. And Andrew Yang has a dedicated online following that has helped catapult him into the national conversation and onto the debate stage.
One downside to Bernie’s digital army is that some of its members have developed a reputation for being abusive online to people who disagree with their candidate’s stances or campaign. “The internet can be the most powerful political tool ever imagined,” Adam Parkhomenko, the former national field director for the DNC, told Recode. “But it can also really hurt you. Especially when your supporters spend so much time online viciously attacking people they should be trying to win over.”
Sanders has asked his backers to cool it. They’ll need to in order to expand his support, especially because many of his online efforts right now are aimed at existing fans and are not necessarily spreading the word.
His podcast, for example, seems to mainly speak to journalists and supporters. Erik Smith, a partner at the strategy firm Blue Engine Message & Media, said that can be shortsighted for a candidate. “If your podcast is talking to your existing supporters and reassuring them you’re doing the right thing and not growing your slice of the pie, then it’s not an effective tool,” he said. “If it’s broadening your appeal, then it’s effective.”
Some of this is by design. Digital strategy in politics is focused on raising money and adding to email lists, not necessarily persuading undecided voters, according to Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University. The money politicians raise through digital they can then use for television ads, which, while less targeted, may be more successful in reaching and persuading broad swaths of voters — it’s harder to skip over a TV commercial than an online video.
“Most of this is about is connecting with the preexisting base,” Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, said. “I do not think anyone who is not already in love with Bernie Sanders is going to tune in to watch Bernie Sanders live.”
As Biden has persistently led Sanders in the polls and other candidates have seen their numbers improve, some of Sanders supporters’ online conversation has become more negative. That may alienate some potential supporters, but Sanders not leading might also help gin up die-hards even more. Grassroots supporters and small-dollar donors, who make up much of Sanders’s base, tend to be more energized to support candidates they perceive as not quite at the top, but close.
The jury is out on whether this is enough to take on Trump
Strategists and experts I spoke with were split over whether Sanders’s digital strength in the 2020 primary would matter much in the general election, because at that point, the entire Democratic establishment, presumably, will be behind whoever the nominee is.
“The Democratic nominee will have 20 campaigns’ worth of field staff to hire from,” Amanda Litman, the founder of the Democratic candidate recruitment group Run for Something, told Recode.
Mike Shields, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, said that Sanders — or whoever the nominee is — might be disadvantaged because the Democratic National Committee’s data operation is not as strong as it once was. “[It] would all work really great if the DNC had an apparatus to take advantage of all of that churning and all of that energy, but they don’t have a data ecosystem to build that can take advantage of it,” he said.
Any Democrat is going to face an uphill battle in taking on Trump in 2020. Incumbents are almost always at a technological advantage to challengers because they have a long on-ramp before they have to run, and they’re not competing with others for donations.
Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s digital strategy in 2016, is now the manager of his campaign. The president’s reelection campaign, which literally launched the day he was inaugurated, has already been pouring millions of dollars into online advertising, and he receives enormous amounts of free media attention.
“Bernie as a human being truly believes in the power of direct media contact,” Banditelli said. “Trump also believes in it.”
In some ways, Sanders’s campaign, including his digital and media strategy, is similar to Trump’s.
“Both Sanders and Trump have a base that is energetic and eager to share their campaign messages. Obviously, Trump can help stimulate this with millions of dollars in advertising spending,” Josh Canter, a Republican strategist at the communications group Harris Media, said. “But if the Sanders campaign can tap into their own energy and help connect supporters, they can help close the gap.”
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.