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Inside Ed Markey's unlikely emergence as an icon to Gen Z activists

In the midst of a pitched primary battle against an opponent barely half his age, septuagenarian Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyRon Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin Black lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination MORE (D-Mass.) has become an unlikely star to a generation of young activists organizing on the internet.

A rowdy bunch of more than 50 Twitter accounts have sprung up in recent months to bolster Markey, 74, who often sports basketball shoes older than some of his newest supporters.

Accounts like “Indie Girls for Markey,” “theater kids for ed markey” and even “Ketchup for Markey,” mostly run by creators in their late teens and early 20s, have created memes and fancams in honor of the senator, who is facing the primary of his life against Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedySupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Warren says she'll run for reelection to Senate Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE III (D-Mass.).

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They’ve rewritten song lyrics to include his name and policies and created Twitter threads matching photos of Markey to various online phenomena, from astrological signs to hip-hop albums.

They’ve also organized massive phone banks and Zoom house parties to bolster Markey in a manner reminiscent of the young progressives who helped boost Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: The center strikes back Sanders against infrastructure deal with more gas taxes, electric vehicle fees Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign.

Markey’s campaign has embraced what supporters call the Markeyverse, posting its own videos of the senator reacting to videos, creating cuts of Markey discussing policy over low-fi beats or posting a video of the candidate himself saying, “that’s no malarkey, I’m Ed Markey” when he hit 100,000 followers on Twitter.

“He supports such important policies that affect our generation, but also, he’s just an authentic person,” said Calla Walsh, 16, a co-founder of Students for Markey, which has more than 2,000 followers. “He’s not trying to manufacture something artificial. He’s not trying to appear quirky or funny.”

The race between Markey and Kennedy, the scion of Massachusetts’s most famous political family, appears tight after Kennedy had led earlier this year.

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A JMC Analytics poll from July 29-30 showed Markey with a 3-point lead, while a July 31-Aug. 7 poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found Markey leading by a much larger margin, 51 percent to 36 percent among all Democratic primary voters. It also showed Markey with a significant edge with young voters, leading 71 percent to 21 percent margin among those aged 18-29.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack GOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection MORE (D-Calif.) on Thursday endorsed Kennedy, leading to criticism from many of the progressives backing Markey. Pelosi said she was endorsing Kennedy out of loyalty to House members, but also said attacks on the Kennedy family had contributed to her decision.

Markey has long sought to win over young voters, and his campaign touts his focus on issues that have appealed to different generations of young progressives over decades.

In the 1970s, Markey focused on nuclear proliferation. In the 1990s, he wrote many of the telecommunications laws that promoted Internet accessibility and expanded broadband capacity. He is a longtime supporter of net neutrality and an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal.

Markey’s appeals to young voters stand out from other campaigns whose outreach can come across as forced. The line between cool and cringe is fine; Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: The center strikes back Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE caused eye rolls when she encouraged young voters to “Pokemon GO to the polls” and Democrats’ attempt to offer “Boy Bye” phone wallpaper in advance of the 2018 midterms was met with ridicule.

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“A lot of that content that’s coming from paid consultants is cringe because there’s money and standards and a lot of unrealistic expectations put around digital content from consultants that ends up making it very cringey,” said Tyler Giles, 25, one of the activists behind the “ed markey reply guys.”

“A lot of the time, they miss the niche,” Giles said. 

Markey’s campaign does not try to rein in the unaffiliated accounts. It has created a Slack channel, now with 2,200 members, to help coordinate volunteer events. Markey routinely dials in to Zoom house parties during his daily 5-mile walks around his neighborhood.

But for all of Markey’s quirks and the campaign’s memes, it is his long-term commitment to progressive causes that has given him the support of Gen Z, say activists.

“There’s nothing cooler than just policy commitments,” said Evelyn Rubinchek, a 19-year-old student at Northeastern University and another one of the minds behind the reply guys. “Most people just haven’t had a handle on the fact that young people care about policy, and we don’t care as much about the optics and the memes as people think we do. Of course it’s a good bonus, but overall we care about policy and platforms and progressivism.”

John Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager, said the campaign had made a point to hire younger staffers — and then leave them to operate in their own voice. The campaign has adapted typical relational organizing strategies that drive online engagement to the youngest generation of voters, who find community in the Markeyverse that encourages them to engage with the campaign beyond one phone bank or Zoom call.

If Markey wins, John Walsh said he expects other campaigns to be clamoring for their digital engagement teams to pursue a similar strategy and “make the magic Internet machine work for me and my middle of the road policy provisions.”

But the campaign and the young people behind the accounts see social media as a vehicle to promote the real goal — progressive policies.

“(Young people) are smart, and they’re committed and they’re honestly unrelenting,” John Walsh said. “This isn’t just about getting some dance moves on TikTok. It’s about saving their lives.”