Since Obama first emerged on the political scene, the social media landscape has evolved considerably. Over the past two electoral cycles, the mobile industry and internet-based services have mushroomed. In 2007, just as Obama was becoming a national figure, the iPhone had yet to be released and text messaging was still in its infant phase. Nevertheless, Obama marshaled supporters by organizing house parties over the internet. And even before there was an Obama, Howard Dean made use of meetup.com as an early organizing tool in the 2004 election.
Today, Bernie Sanders has moved far beyond such early trends by embracing new and innovative platforms while hiring a media company appropriately named Revolution Messaging no less. For an old timer, Sanders has certainly been successful at recruiting young cutting-edge talent. A recent report in the New York Times notes that millenial generation volunteers have built interactive maps of campaign events. Computer geeks meanwhile have pushed an app which allows campaign staff and others to collect donations at rallies by merely swiping credit cards over an iPad. The young cohorts have even come up with a tool which lines up volunteers with lists of voters to call.
Internet Grows Up
In contrast to other candidates mired in such anachronistic technologies as Twitter and Facebook, Bernie supporters have turned to Reddit so as to achieve maximum advantage. A community-focused web site, Reddit displays links to articles and topic posts. The more such links and posts are shared, the more they rise in prominence. A favorite amongst the youth and vocal crowd, Reddit provides fertile territory for political organizers. What is more, the site enables users to create so-called "sub-reddits" so as to explore specific topics.
With tens of thousands of subscribers already on the Sanders for President subreddit, Bernie is well on his way to building up an electronic army. In addition, Bernie has his own Coders for Sanders thread on Reddit. If that were not enough, the Vermont Senator has exploited Reddit to advertise political events and turn out huge crowds. In one case, organizers made use of Reddit to advertise a massive rally in Madison, Wisconsin which drew a whopping 10,000 people.
From Slack to Revolutionary Messaging
Sanders supporters have moved beyond the early internet in other significant ways as well. Volunteers have turned to something called Slack, an online chat program popular amongst the techie crowd. The program allows users to create channels, similar to glorified chat rooms, to discuss issues of vital importance. Volunteers use Slack to communicate day and night, to ask questions or brainstorm. Reportedly, top campaign aides check in periodically to offer feedback. United Slack Teams for Bernie now boasts sections in various states, with New York displaying the highest number of individual groups.
In tandem with such efforts, Bernie has hired a bunch of tech gurus formerly associated with Obama's 2008 campaign. Revolution Messaging has been tasked with looking after social media, online fundraising, web design and digital advertising. The company sends out a stream of text messages, e-mails and issue-based advertisements. Needless to say, Revolution Messaging also helps to grow Sanders' presence on such platforms as Reddit. So far, Bernie's bid to hire Revolution Messaging has paid off by leading to additional Facebook and Twitter followers, not to mention an impressive stream of small-dollar donations. The company itself reports that almost 200,000 people have signed up to join Bernie's campaign over the internet. In addition, Revolution Messaging has taken advantage of Hillary Clinton's negative tactics against Sanders by quickly launching web ads which prompted subscribers to donate more money to Bernie ---- a whopping $1.2 million in less than two days.
Avoiding Obama's Tactical Electronic Mistakes
Just what are the long-term implications of such digital mobilization? In keeping with his talk about launching a "political revolution," Sanders has said that he will capitalize on such newfound citizen involvement by superseding Obama's previous online accomplishments. Speaking at a town hall meeting in Iowa, Bernie stated "in 2008, as you in Iowa well know, Barack Obama ran one of the great campaigns in American history...Brilliant campaign, brilliant... go down in history."
Not stopping there, however, Sanders went on to discuss some strategic mistakes committed by Obama after the campaign. "What Obama did not do," the Vermont Senator noted, "is when he got into office, say to the Republicans, 'You're not negotiating with me, you're negotiating with tens of millions of people.' And what our job is, and this is why I say this all the time, and let me say it to you, I'm not here just to ask for your help to get me elected President, to help me win here in Iowa. I'm asking for your help the day after the election. Because, unless you are actively involved in the political process, we will not bring about the real changes that we want."
Obama's OFA Fiasco
Perhaps, Bernie is hinting at shortcomings like Obama For America (OFA), the president's information-age grassroots network. Though the outfit managed to corral support for a couple of Obama policy initiatives after the election, idealistic volunteers felt as if the group never lived up to its true potential. Take, for example, the president's own chief blogger Sam Graham-Felsen. Writing in the Washington Post, Felsen remarked upon his own political disillusionment in the wake of the 2008 election. After Obama agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthiest, Felsen wrote, "Pundits have focused on how Obama has alienated the left. But the issue isn't the left -- it's the list."
The blogger is referring to Obama's massive e-mail "list" which included a broad coalition of13 million people including the young, African Americans, independents and even some Republicans. OFA seemed on the cusp of unleashing a veritable political earthquake, but bizarrely Obama put the entire OFA operation "to sleep" as volunteers were "exiled to the confines of the Democratic National Committee."
Specifically OFA could have been deployed during the battle over tax cuts, for instance, but the president failed to mobilize online support. Similarly, during the political debate over health care, OFA supporters were discouraged from embracing a public option and got corralled into favoring generalized calls for "reform." Speaking ruefully, Felsen notes "Obama has made it clear that, for the most part, his administration isn't seriously interested in deploying this massive grass-roots list -- which was once heralded as a force that could reshape politics as we know it -- to fight for sweeping legislative change."
Hopefully, Bernie will be able to overcome such historic liabilities and improve upon the lackluster electronic record set by Obama. It's a little ironic, however, that many of Bernie's tech gurus hail from Obama's previous efforts. Take, for example, Revolution Messaging founder Scott Goodstein, who served as Obama's External Online Director in 2008. While it would be an exaggeration to blame former Obama staffers for subsequent disappointments associated with the electronic network, there's a sense of déjà vu here.
In any case, it all boils down to what Sanders actually intends to do with his vast new electronic resources. In a previous article, I suggested that Bernie has a somewhat limited and constrained idea of the contours of "political revolution." Simply put, Sanders seems to think that electronic media should bring volunteers together for the purpose of voter drives, phone banking and the like. If he were ever elected to the White House, Bernie might even make use of his sub-reddit to organize protests in advance of key votes in Washington.
Old vs. New Media
In many ways this mindset improves upon Obama's mistakes, and hopefully the Vermont Senator's strategy will prove successful. Even though Sanders has lagged behind Clinton in national surveys, and even polls behind his top competitor in some early voting states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, Bernie may overcome the deficit by deploying his followers on Reddit and Slack and thereby demonstrate a well-tuned "ground game." In the end, Clinton may poll ahead of Bernie, but the former Secretary of State probably can't count on the same level of electronic organization and resources.
On the other hand, Bernie seems to be placing all his eggs in one basket, and no candidate can afford to ignore so-called old media in this day and age. The fact is that many Americans still haven't heard of Sanders and have little grasp of cutting edge technology designed to spread Bernie's progressive ideas. The Vermont Senator has given provocative speeches on democratic socialism, for example, but how many Americans tuned in to hear the Senator's words? Like it or not, elections are still largely won or lost based on the 24-hour news cycle.
Gaining Traction in Advance of Iowa
To be sure the media doesn't make life easy as it tends to focus on international terrorism or the Republican side of the presidential race. On the other hand, if Revolution Messaging has been brainstorming about how to get their candidate on to CNN, it certainly doesn't look like it. Bernie hasn't made things any easier for himself, either. The candidate seems to have decided "the mainstream media is inherently corrupted by corporate interests and I can't be bothered with sound bytes." The Vermont Senator also eschews attack dog politics associated with the Republican field, and resists plunging in the dagger during Democratic debates.
Fair enough, but perhaps Bernie can devise ways to capture the media spotlight which won't necessarily compromise his standards. Rather than diffuse the energy which characterized his campaign in the early summer months, Bernie could deploy his new electronic resources to promote ground-breaking events. There's no lack of pressing issues in the news cycle these days, from gun control to police brutality to immigration reform. There's no rule which says that candidates can't call for mass protest in key cities across the country. The media has a poor track record when it comes to covering such protest, but perhaps Bernie can manage to leverage his new media so as to influence old media. At this point in the campaign, he may not have much to lose.