‘Markeyverse’ of online fans helps take down a Kennedy

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) began his victory speech on Tuesday night by thanking the people who made the primary win possible: his wife, his family, his campaign, its supporters and the “Markeyverse.”

That last group, a decentralized community of roughly a hundred fan accounts run largely by young people, was crucial in the incumbent’s come-from-behind win over Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.).

The organic online community, populated by progressives from all over the country, rallied support for phone banking, voter registration and donations — all while raising Markey’s profile. Despite being 35 years Kennedy’s senior, Markey, 74, enjoyed a dominant lead among voters under the age of 30 in polls taken during the final stretch of the race.

While the Markeyverse likely isn’t easily replicated, the campaign’s fostering and support of online youth involvement may provide a blueprint for progressive campaigns and causes.

At first glance, Markey, who has spent 44 years in Congress, is not the kind of candidate one would expect to be a champion of young political organizers.

The contrast with Kennedy was all the more striking considering the 39-year-old challenger made youth and electing a “new generation” of leaders a central feature of his campaign.

On the surface, the Massachusetts Senate primary looked similar to the successful 2018 primary challenge by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) against former Rep. Joe Crowley or Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s (D-Mass.) primary victory that same year over former Rep. Michael Capuano.

Unlike those races, however, Markey ran to the left of his younger challenger on key issues, with an established progressive track record to back up his positions.

The Sunrise Movement, a youth-driven environmental advocacy group, endorsed Markey before Kennedy even announced his challenge because of the incumbent’s prominent role in crafting the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal to tackle climate change that he introduced alongside Ocasio-Cortez.

“We got involved, quite simply, because we worked very closely with Sen. Markey over the prior year on the Green New Deal,” Evan Weber, Sunrise’s national political director, told The Hill.

Members of @edsreplyguys, an account with more than 3,000 followers run by five young people dotted across the country, said it was that level of policy focus that attracted them to Markey.

“It helps that Ed had the shoes and he had the outfits,” Emerson Toomey, the founding member of ed’s reply guys and a student at Northeastern University in Boston, told The Hill. “But, at least for me, the driving factor was the platforms that he was running on and the things that he cared about, not necessarily him.”

It wasn’t just Markey’s policies, though. The campaign’s willingness to listen to those young voters and incorporate their ideas into the platform was crucial to winning and maintaining their support.

“This is one of the biggest [campaigns] that’s ever sort of said, ‘We’re gonna give our volunteers and our supporters a lot of insight and power to get our message out,’” said Tyler Giles, a 25-year-old who works in digital campaigning and a member of ed’s reply guys. “Letting volunteers, especially young people who are interested in a campaign or in issues, take ideas and run with them is something that not a lot of campaigns do.”

Weber described a similar openness from Markey’s campaign to listen to Sunrise and incorporate its demands.

“The senator’s campaign very quickly after our endorsement reached out to us and welcomed us in at a high level, setting early strategy for the campaign,” he said.

Members of @Students4Markey, a Twitter account with more than 2,500 followers, said the campaign largely let them host events, such as phone banking, without intervening but was there if help was needed.

“A reason why we were so successful is if we ever needed help, the campaign was always there to support us, and they always encouraged us to do our own thing,” Cherilyn Strader told The Hill.

The supporters who spoke with The Hill also pointed to Markey’s fellows program, which brought more than 400 young people onto the campaign.

When the race was called, Markey was leading Kennedy 55 percent to 45 percent, a substantial turnaround for a candidate who was trailing in some polls by as many as 17 percentage points in August 2019.

Other campaigns and political organizations are likely to try to replicate the level of online youth engagement managed by the Markey campaign after his victory.

Getting young people — who polling shows are to the left on many social and economic issues but also turn out at comparatively low rates — is key to promoting any progressive agenda.

Beyond getting young people excited to cast ballots, Markey’s team showed the value in incorporating youth as a way to boost overall success.

Students For Markey organized big phone banking events, with one totaling more than 300 participants, using its network on Twitter.

Young, online-savvy voters are also essential for building and implementing a strong digital campaign strategy, Weber said.

“Millennials and Generation Z are digital natives, and if your goal is to reach young people with digital content, then having people who are digitally savvy young people run your digital strategy is the best way to do that,” he said.

Members of the Markeyverse who spoke with The Hill all said the unique circumstances of the race and Markey’s personality make it unlikely that the approach can be easily transferred to another campaign. However, they said other campaigns could incorporate some of the things Markey’s team did well, such as embracing youth staff and encouraging decentralized messaging.

Members of ed’s reply guys have drafted a Google Form for interested campaigns to hire young people who were involved in Markey’s victory.

“If you want young people to create youth energy for your campaign, please hire young people and actually pay them to do the really hard work of creating energy and energizing voters,” said Joshua Rush, a member of the group.

Getting young voters energized, however, is on the candidate.

“What the Ed Markey campaign showed is that the most exciting thing for young people is unapologetic, authentic champions who will fight for the issues that we care about,” Weber said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had Tyler Giles’s incorrect last name.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Ed Markey Joe Crowley Joe Kennedy Markeyverse Massachusetts Michael Capuano online progressives Young voters

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