2020 Democrats adapt to changing social media landscape

2020 Democrats adapt to changing social media landscape
© iStock/Twitter/The Hill illustration

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary is being waged across a wide set of social media platforms, ranging from “Ask Me Anything” discussions on Reddit to livestreaming on sites like Twitch, as a crowded field of candidates looks to stand out and court a wider set of voters.

The push, which also includes a heavy reliance on more traditional platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, reflects the emphasis on personality and authenticity in today’s mobile world, especially in an increasingly young and diverse Democratic Party.

Though presidential candidates have used social media before, 2020 marks an escalation of the trend, according to strategists.

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If done right, strategists say, it can help boost a campaign, as in the case of previously unknown South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states MORE, who vaulted to the top tier of Democratic candidates in part because of savvy use of social media by his campaign and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg.

But it can also backfire, making a candidate look inauthentic, or worse — leading to a misstep that can attract attention for the wrong reasons. 

Of the 2020 candidates, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHow can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states Buttigieg campaign says 2000 people attended Iowa rally MORE (I-Vt.) has been among the most adept users of social media, hosting several “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer sessions on Reddit, a discussion platform that hosts
conversations on anything from the latest tech gadget to 2020 politics, and one that skews male and younger.

His campaign also has a channel on Twitch, a livestreaming platform often used by gamers and owned by Amazon. Sanders used the platform to interact with users a day before a major speech on “Medicare For All” on Wednesday.

Josh Miller-Lewis, the Sanders campaign’s digital communications director, said the campaign’s overall strategy is to “bring more and more people into the political process.” 

“What we try to do on every platform is to reach out to people, and especially people who may not otherwise be interested in politics,” he told The Hill.

“All of this comes from Bernie,” Miller-Lewis added. “Throughout his career he’s been really interested in engaging people in the political process through new technology and media.”

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The search for new platforms is supplemented by a reliance on more established social media platforms like Twitter — which continues to be the main form of communication for President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE — as well as traditional campaign staples like state visits and town halls.

All 25 Democratic presidential candidates maintain active social media accounts, including Sanders, who has 17.8 million followers between his two verified Twitter accounts, the most of the 2020 contenders, though that marks only a fraction of Trump’s 62 million followers on the platform.

The focus on having a sustained social media strategy is being reflected by a move from several Democratic candidates, including Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE (D-Mass.), to bring digital operations in-house and to increase spending on digital ads, as shown by the most recent fundraising filings.

The push toward new platforms also reflects the need to reach a Democratic Party that is increasingly becoming younger and more diverse.

An analysis of exit polls from the 2008 and 2016 presidential primaries conducted by CNN showed that Democratic voters are increasingly minorities and well-educated whites.

Meanwhile, data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed turnout among those aged 18 to 29 surged 16 points, to 36 percent, in the 2018 midterm elections from four years earlier, the biggest increase across all age groups.

Many voted Democratic — the exit polls show that in 2018, people under 30 voted for the party’s candidates by a 35-point margin, according to The New York Times. 

The smart use of social media can make a difference, according to analysts.

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said he believes social media helped propel Buttigieg from a relatively unknown candidate to a top contender. 

Buttigieg and his husband have maintained active social media profiles, which have helped shape his image and spread the campaign’s messaging. Chasten Buttigieg has 178,000 followers on Instagram, more than some 2020 contenders.

“If you combine the opportunity to raise your name recognition by talking to voters with a solid message, that’s a winning combination,” Smikle said. “He’s sort of portrayed himself as the kind of values candidate in this race.”

He added that the candidate is at his best when he doesn’t seem “overly polished” or “overly packaged.”

Tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangEmanuel jokes: 'I'm a new, mellow Rahm' Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee MORE has also been especially prolific and has attracted a devout group of supporters he commonly refers to as the “Yang Gang,” including more than 500,000 followers on Twitter.

Yang, like Sanders, also has a campaign Twitch account. 

Laura Olin, who was a member of the 2012 Obama reelection campaign’s digital team, said that using these platforms allowed candidates like Yang to tap “networks and people who might not otherwise be engaged in a primary this early.” 

“He’s not going to probably get the typical mainstream Democratic voters to support him, so he really has to go to otherwise, largely untapped places to get those people,” she said. 

However, the use of social media can also lead to missteps that are then magnified as people share the content. 

Warren attracted some mockery, including from Trump, after pausing midway through an Instagram livestream to say she was grabbing herself a beer, a moment some saw as inauthentic.

No 2020 candidate so far has caused lasting damage to their campaigns from social media. Warren retains an active social media presence, which she uses to both inject personality, including frequent pictures of her dog, and to roll out a steady stream of detailed policy proposals.

But the danger remains there.

“Doing something really tone-deaf or just off can really damage your brand,” Olin said. 

She cited criticism of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Buttigieg 'doesn't have significant black support even in his own city' Biden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE for telling the brothers of a 13-year-old girl to “keep the guys away from your sister” during a campaign event in June. 

The incident came at a time when Biden was under scrutiny after some women said they were left uncomfortable by his physical contact.

“Maybe in the room it seemed like a totally normal thing to say,” Olin said of the moment, but she added it could have become a more serious issue for the campaign as it spread through social media. 

“A major thing about Twitter, of course, is that it can strip context,” she noted.

But perils aside, no 2020 candidate can afford to stay out of social media. 

Author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonDemocrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges Chicago suburb to use recreational marijuana sales tax to fund reparations program: report The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Witness dismisses 'fictional' GOP claims of Ukraine meddling MORE’s campaign said using social media platforms like Reddit is a way to reach out to “young and disinterested” voters who are not likely to watch traditional news platforms.

“The Reddit politics section alone has millions of readers every day. They have more of a pulse and understanding of regular people than some pundits and beltway insiders,” the campaign said in a statement to The Hill.

“Plus, it’s engaging directly with the people who have circulated Marianne memes, stories and even criticisms.”