Political Twitter is unhappy with Pete Buttigieg — Does anyone care?
With fewer than 70 days until the Iowa caucuses, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has plenty to be thankful for. A new Iowa State University poll shows Buttigieg capturing 26 percent of likely caucus-goers, putting the mayor nearly 10 points ahead of his nearest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). The Iowa State poll confirms an earlier Des Moines Register/CNN survey that also gave Buttigieg about a quarter of likely Iowa voters.
Buttigieg’s surge is causing ulcers in the very online world of Political Twitter, the parallel universe where self-appointed pundits, liberal activists and Twitter-verified “influencers” are as likely to support businessman Andrew Yang as they are to rally behind Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
To them, Buttigieg represents an unconscionable offense against progressivism; his growing popularity a source of ceaseless (and often misguided) criticism. Speaking to USA Today, Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, poked fun at the tendency of Twitter crowds to relentlessly mock anything the Buttigieg campaign does, from candy choices to the unveiling of a campaign theme song.
There’s just one problem: It isn’t clear anyone outside Twitter actually cares.
In May, New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece that drew its title from a popular Twitter saying: “Twitter isn’t real life.” This oft-forgotten reminder is the social media equivalent of Godwin’s Law: Just as Godwin argued that any debate will eventually invoke Adolf Hitler, any political discussion on Twitter will eventually draw a scolding about taking Twitter too seriously.
Twitterers who look with confusion on Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa would do well to keep that mantra handy. Given the powerful echo chamber effects at play in communicating almost exclusively with people who share your political views, it is all too easy to forget that commentary on Twitter skews well to the left of the Democratic base — to say nothing of America as a whole.
“The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online,” report Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy in an extensive survey of the “super-activists” who embody political Twitter.
The problem gets worse the further out you zoom. According to Pew Research Center, only about one-in-five Americans report using Twitter. Politically-engaged users account for less than half of that number. Those users tend to be younger and have more education than the average American, creating a parallel electorate that looks nothing like early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Is it any surprise that a left-skewed population of young, educated liberal activists representing, generously, 10 percent of the American electorate might find themselves flummoxed by the decisions of likely Iowa caucus-goers? While Twitter talking heads harp on Buttigieg’s middle-way stances on “Medicare for All” and cringe at his plan to target “future former Republicans” willing to vote for a Democratic candidate, Iowa voters are assembling behind Buttigieg — and staying there.
That doesn’t mean Buttigieg has abandoned Twitter. Post a clip of a Buttigieg campaign event or live-tweet a presidential debate and you’re likely to draw the attention of a huge online community dedicated to sharing Buttigieg content across social media. These are the online Millennials who buck the trend of supporting Sanders, Warren or Yang. And they’ve mastered the art of amplifying tweets into viral prominence.
The accounts go by names like Good Guy Pete (a South Bend-based Buttigieg podcast), Pups for Pete (which, expectedly, shares photos of supporters’ pets), Pete Buttigifs (short looping clips of Buttigieg being relatable) and, strangely for a social network, Introverts for Pete.
The millennial core of Buttigieg’s campaign is versed in the futility of Twitter flame wars. Instead, they ignore the criticism, post the memes and amplify the message. They operate with the understanding that Twitter is not real life, but that boosting a positive image of their candidate can yield digital converts. Their strategy looks a lot like that of former President Barack Obama and dominant challengers like Warren. It also works.
Anything is possible in a Democratic primary where not a single vote has yet been cast for any candidate. But if national and state polls are accurate, Political Twitter is in for a rude awakening when Iowa and New Hampshire finally vote. As Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic in April, “the problem isn’t Twitter. It’s that you care about Twitter.”
Candidates who cater to the unpleasable nature of Twitter’s digital Democrats may see their tweets go viral and their content trend, but it remains unclear that any of those efforts yields actual Democratic votes. Online activists may be saying boo to Buttigieg. It doesn’t seem like anyone is listening.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly makes appearances on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.
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