Berning the Competition: A Look at the Bernie Sanders Political Campaign
Bernie Sanders is making a remarkable impact in the 2016 presidential race. Raising large sums of money, and attracting huge crowds at his rallies, Sanders is making himself a competitor against other prominent political names like Clinton, Bush, and Trump. His success as a whole is directly related to his powerful social media presence and his dedicated following on the internet.
Sanders seemingly blew up overnight. It started with the “Feel the Bern” hashtag which has now been turned into t-shirts and coffee mugs for supporters to buy. Next Sanders would live Tweet the Republican debates as they were happening to engage with those watching. During his own debates, there were clear planned out Tweets and sayings ready for when he would bring up a topic, and recently a fake video ad created for him by Ellen DeGeneres featuring a viral video sensation that is Drake’s new single Hotline Bling. Sanders also remains one of the only candidates to be active and engaging on the popular site Reddit, which has a massive youth demographic. Sanders has maintained a steady climb to being a front-runner for the presidential race while others have fluctuated in the media. Looking into what Sanders is doing could lead to some interesting discoveries.
Who is Bernie Sanders?
Looking at Sanders history, we see his slow climb in politics. In 1981, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, defeating a six-term incumbent. Ten years later, Sanders would defeat Peter Smith in a race to be Vermont’s sole congressman. This made Sanders the first independent elected to the House in 40 years. In 2006, Sanders ran against and defeated Rich Tarrant to be elected to the United States Senate, again running as an independent. On May 26, 2015, Sanders announced his candidacy for president of the United States as a Democrat (berniesanders.com/about). It is through this slow climb and lengthy political involvement that Sanders brings a wealth of knowledge, ideas, and experience to the table.
The manager and director of the Sanders campaign social media sites is Kenneth Pennington. Before being the digital director for the Sanders 2016 campaign, Pennington served in Sanders senate office working on the website, email outreach, and social media. Having a close relationship with someone he trusted for his social media added to the success of Sanders’ campaign. Rather than hiring a new social media agency, designating an individual who believes in the same values as him undoubtedly made everything posted on social media more organic and aided in leading to a better connection with followers and voters.
The Sanders campaign is based on a grass-roots effort for a political revolution. To make politics about the people again instead of about billionaires. Sanders has a strong emphasis on free college, jobs, getting big money out of politics, fighting poverty, and veteran benefits. Issues that impact many demographics and age groups. Through this political revolution, the Sanders campaign hopes to change the way politicians run their campaigns.
The overall goal of any presidential race is to first get the nomination from a political party. Sanders, in particular, hopes to achieve the Democratic Party nomination, and then eventually become the president of the United States of America. The Sanders campaign is acting differently than the other candidates and it is beginning to set him apart. Some political candidates use an independent political action committee, or Super PAC, for funding which allows unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but does not contribute or coordinate directly with parties or candidates. Sanders instead funds his campaign with small donations from the public. Being successful with this campaign approach is making a statement and raising awareness that it is possible for politicians to not be bought by corporations or entirely funded by big business.
Sanders general message is about being for the people, helping the little guy, and needing a political revolution in order to improve America. Sanders seems to have the edge on understanding what everyday working Americans want to see from a president. His target audience is voters within the working class and youths in particular. With these target audiences in mind, the Sanders campaign has reached out on different platforms, setting themselves apart from other candidates. Sanders is heavily involved in the Reddit community which is heavily populated with a youth audience. While Sanders has reportedly been active on Reddit for the past few years, now he is actively talking directly to the voters through ‘Ask Me Anything’s’, (AMA) a type of forum on Reddit where people, mostly celebrities, agree to answer any question readers wish to ask. This type of communication fits right in with the grass-roots style of the Sanders campaign.
Sanders is showing everyone that you can change the way politics is executed. People feel as if they are part of the Sanders campaign. A possible addition to the goals of the campaign and social media presence could be to spread awareness that people do have the power to change the way the system works. Sanders is trying to foster an experience for people and inform them through social media and through his political positions that its time for a big change.
Bernie Sanders has two Twitter accounts, and two Facebook pages. One for him as a senator, and the other for his campaign. Nothing posted on these four accounts is the same. Only one account indicates that the statements being said could be from Sanders himself. The @SenSanders account includes in its descriptions “Tweets ending in -B are from Sanders, all others are from a staffer” (twitter.com/SenSanders). This gives the chance for a more organic feel to the Twitter account. However during this study which spanned the months of October and November 2015, not a single tweet featured the “-B” sign at the end to indicate that Sanders himself was Tweeting.
The Facebook accounts both have almost two million followers each. The Twitter accounts have near one million followers each. These accounts could have vast amounts of overlapping followers which skews the possibility of knowing just how many followers in total Sanders has. This could be a flaw within the campaign. Having too many accounts talking about different things can lead to people missing out on information or feeling like there is too much to keep up on. Comparing this to the social media presence of Donald Trump, who only has one Twitter account that is nearing five million followers (twitter.com/realDonaldTrump). This provides one central location for all those interested in learning more about the Trump campaign. Sanders appears to be the only candidate who has multiple social media accounts. The main focus appears to be on the campaign Facebook page. This page publishes more posts a day than any of the other accounts. Many pictures and videos of Sanders’ policies are posted on the Facebook accounts.
These posts give clear and direct information to the people who follow Sanders and help make aware his stance for change in politics.
Interestingly, Sanders held a live Tweeting session during the Republican debate. It was reported that Sanders’ digital director was the one typing up what Sanders was saying while they both watched the debate.(http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/09/17/441004967/bernie-sanders-live-tweets-gop-debate-gets-bored-goes-home-early).
Starting a “Debate With Bernie” hashtag, Sanders then gave his opinion on the topics discussed and the behavior of his Republican opponents. Sanders’ Tweets were a huge success and he had two of the three most retweeted posts of the night, only being beaten out by the “Sorry Mom” tweet from Jeb Bush, which shortly followed his confession about smoking marijuana at one point in his life. Bush’s Tweet gained roughly 30,000 retweets. Pictured below is Sanders’ top Tweet which got nearly 19,000 retweets when he brought Trump’s hypocritical views on women to light.
The other Tweet earned roughly 16,000 retweets where Sanders talked about the two previous presidents.
A majority of the Tweets posted on the Sanders account were direct call-outs to the Republican candidates or were sarcastic comments to counter what other candidates had said. Sanders also tried to keep raising awareness on issues that he thought were more important for a presidential debate.
With two of the three most retweeted statements of the night, Sanders was able to be a prominent voice of the discussion on a night focused on the opposite party.
Sanders is raising massive sums of money throughout his campaign trail. Through his system of online donations, Sanders is keeping pace with the other candidates who are accepting donations from large corporations and billionaires. Sanders is raising more money at a quicker pace than president Barack Obama did during his 2008 campaign. Sanders has raised nearly 26.2 million dollars which is only 3 million fewer than Clinton. Gaining these numbers without the use of a Super PAC is a testament to the success and popularity of the candidate and campaign.(http://time.com/4056925/bernie-sanders-obama-fundraising/)
Sanders’ media presence and influence is massive and continues to grow. This is seen most notably during the first Democratic debate on October 13, 2015. During the debate Sanders was the most searched candidate, was the most retweeted candidate, with 12,000 shares, had the highest amount of twitter mentions, gained the most followers, and raised 1.3 million dollars in the few hours after the debate.
Sanders became the most discussed candidate due to his words regarding the Hilary Clinton email scandal. Sanders claimed “The American people are sick of hearing about your damn emails.”
This became the most retweeted post of the night.
This is concurrent with Sanders’ focus on talking about the American people. This line was huge and talked about for weeks to come. It was the headline for many news sites the following day.(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bernie-sanders-hillary-clinton-emails_561db703e4b028dd7ea5ada3)
By doing this, Sanders was able to address one of his opponent’s flaws in a non-aggressive fashion, while still also remaining on topic. Whether or not this was a planned gesture is still up for debate. However, Sanders had to be aware that since this was the first Democratic debate that the email scandal would be brought up at some point and probably made his decision well in advance to either exploit the emails or not talk about it at all.
The popular site Reddit has played a key role in the Sanders campaign. Ashley Dawson, a spokeswoman for Reddit, claims that out of all the candidates in the current race “Sanders is among the most active on the site, conducting his own Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ to 8,593,027 subscribers shortly after announcing his run for the presidency” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/29/politics/bernie-sanders-reddit/).
The official campaign page for Sanders on Reddit, called SandersForPresident, currently has 132,325 readers. (https://www.reddit.com/r/SandersForPresident/) This is miles ahead of any other candidates numbers. Clinton’s Reddit page currently only holds 1,046 readers (https://www.reddit.com/r/hillaryclinton/). Sander’s digital director, Kenneth Pennington, gives insight into why Sanders is dominating on Reddit. “Pennington believes the themes of free college, jobs and getting big money out of politics speaks heavily to Reddit‘s demographic of young people.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/29/politics/bernie-sanders-reddit/)
Most recently Sanders was on the Ellen DeGeneres show and was featured dancing as he came out on stage and beforehand. DeGeneres later took this footage and applied it to the viral video sensation of rapper Drake’s song Hotline Bling.
The original video on the Ellen YouTube page has 2.5 million views since it was posted a week ago. With DeGeneres being a popular TV personality and opinion leader, having this type of exposure for Sanders is exceptional publicity for his campaign.
Looking at success for a political campaign can come in many different forms. The most basic being awareness of the candidate, raising money, gaining followers, and finally to get people to vote for the candidate. These are all things we have seen continue to increase for Bernie Sanders throughout his campaign.
With the election being next year, it will be interesting to see how many votes the Sanders campaign will get throughout the country if he wins the Democratic nomination; A statistic of success that cannot be measured at this time.
Sanders and his campaign, however, are likely to be proud with their large sums of money raised, their vast rally crowds generated, and the overall experience they have created for their campaign. They are doing it differently and proving that this approach has the potential to work and change the game of politics. Giving the people a voice and making the campaign about them should be marked as a success in any social media campaign, be it politics or otherwise.
The Democratic Party has only held one debate so far with the second scheduled for November 14, 2015. From this debate, we can see huge support for Sanders. Polls on sites like MSNBC, TIME’s, and many others report Sanders being the victor by wide margins. (http://www.hngn.com/articles/140151/20151014/sanders-wins-first-democratic-debates-according-nearly-poll.htm) Sanders has 65 percent on MSNBC’s online poll, 54 percent in TIME’s, 72 percent on Slate, and 81 percent ahead on CNN.(http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/oct/19/nowthis/no-internet-cnn-did-not-delete-its-poll-showing-be/) Seeing these huge leads after the first debate gives insight into how Sanders is appealing to a wide range of people and slowly edging out Clinton.
Sanders, however, has not completely gained the lead for the Democratic Party. As seen in the graph below which contains statistics from polls collected November 12, 2015, Clinton, in purple, still leads with 55 percent to Sanders’, represented in brown, 33%.
Sanders remains to be one of the top candidates for social media, often being the most followed, retweeted, or most shared on any given day. Even more so on presidential debate nights. The following Tweet from the account Twitter Government shows the candidates who gained the most followers in the first hour of the most recent Republican Party debate. Sanders is ranked number four, ahead of Clinton.
Whether it is a Republican debate or a Democratic debate, Sanders is constantly gaining new followers.
Sanders has been on a consistent rise since the first debate. Visiting the statistics gathered on November 12, 2015, in the table above, the sharp increase for Sanders, represented in brown, is his increase shortly after the first Democratic debate. While Clinton increased as well rising from 51.4 to 54.8, Sanders had a greater increase from 27.4 to 32.5. With the second debate coming up, it will be interesting to see if Sanders continues to dominate in the debates, and continue his slow climb to challenge Clinton.
With a little under a year left until election day, Sanders has plenty of time to catch up to and even surpass Clinton to become the Democratic Nominee. Sanders continues to show that politics are not just a millionaire’s game, but can, in fact, be about the voters and everyday people of the nation. His presence and following on Reddit shows that Sanders is reaching out to communicate with people in new ways that have not been used before. With the rise of Sanders’ numbers and the ability to raise nearly the same amount of money as his competitors without the aid of a super PAC, he demonstrates that there is more than one way for politicians to run a meaningful campaign.
If Sanders becomes the next president of the United States of America, people will surely look back to his social media campaign and see how things were done differently and that is what lead to his victory.