Candidates can’t campaign, so they’re trying to go viral

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On Wednesday, the field director for Mel Gagarin’s congressional campaign sat shirtless — illuminated by candlelight — in his bathtub reading a scary story over Instagram Live.

Bedtime Bathtime Storytimes” have become regular events for Gagarin’s campaign even if they’re only for an audience of around a dozen people, including other members of the campaign. At the end of his 20-minute reading, field director Kyle Levenick took a sip of wine and quietly blew out his candles before ending the stream in total darkness.

“We don’t know if that’s providing a service to people, but he was doing it anyway,” Karina Sahlin, Gagarin’s communications director, said in an interview.

Before the pandemic hit, Gagarin’s team was planning to run a traditional grassroots campaign in New York’s sixth district: knocking on doors and shaking hands at community events. Now, house calls and handshakes are a public health risk, and the team has been forced to move everything online. The campaign’s designer has held virtual typography streams explaining the origins of Gagarin’s logo. His staff frequently holds town halls with voters online and shoots YouTube videos on issues like universal basic income and punk rock.

“A lot of it is just throwing stuff at the wall to see what works, either from what people say they enjoy or just to provide a distraction,” Sahlin said. “They might have the money, but we literally have people who will work ten-hour days to come knock doors for us.”

There is no playbook for running a completely digital political campaign, and candidates like Gagarin have had to improvise. Before the pandemic hit, Gagarin was running an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style progressive grassroots campaign to unseat Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives for the last six years, in New York’s June 23rd primary.

Now, Zoom calls have become the new rope lines, and Instagram Live streams have become the hot platform for celebrity endorsements and policy conversations across the board. Facebook and Twitter are now rally stages for candidates to discuss policy positions and build a following — a following they’re hoping will translate into voter turnout.

Succeeding on those platforms requires a very different set of skills from traditional campaigning. If their candidates aren’t starting with name recognition or institutional support, the only option is to build it online. And in the mad scramble for followers, campaigns are starting to behave a lot more like influencers.

Social distancing has already wreaked havoc on the 2020 campaign cycle. Simply holding an election has become difficult, with some primaries compromised and others canceled outright. In a memo last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urged down-ballot candidates to follow suit and hold “as many activities as possible” online, suggesting that they stream virtual town halls and hold online phone banks with volunteers instead of more traditional in-person events.

According to Elizabeth Spiers, a digital media veteran who now runs a political consulting shop called The Insurrection, that confusion is hurting up-and-coming candidates the most.

“If you have a campaign that’s already leaning heavily on media for messaging and voter contact, this might not be a terrible situation,” Spiers said. “But if you have a more grassroots campaign where you really are relying on field operations to get people out and to get the candidate into the community, it’s a lot tougher.” Candidates who are adept at social media can transition some of their campaigns over the internet. But in many cases, they can’t even get on the ballot because of social distancing orders.

For progressives, that disadvantage was driven home by Democratic presidential primary, which ended on a sour and anticlimactic note. When the pandemic hit, Sen. Bernie Sanders was facing an uphill battle to unseat former Vice President Joe Biden and challenge the party establishment — a fight his supporters were eager to take on, however slim the odds. Sanders ended his campaign on April 8th, saying that continuing the race “would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.”

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Rep. Joe Kennedy III’s Senate campaign has relied heavily on social media.
Photo By Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The most successful candidates have been those who already had resources to draw on. A sitting congressman and a member of a storied political dynasty, Rep. Joe Kennedy III’s (D-MA) is running to unseat Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in Massachusetts’ Senate primary on September 1st. Markey has arguably stronger progressive credentials (including a much-coveted AOC endorsement), but you wouldn’t know it from checking Facebook, where Kennedy has racked up over a million followers. (He has around 100,000 on Instagram and Twitter, too.) Since the start of the pandemic, Kennedy has been holding near-daily check-ins over Twitter with constituents, talking about current events, and holding town halls with famous celebrities and philanthropists like Chef José Andrés and the cast of the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen.

“Our goal was to run a very aggressive retail campaign, and that means a lot of handshakes and high fives, and you can’t do that right now,” Kennedy told The Verge in an interview. “As our team got together to think, we decided to go heavy into the digital space and try to create something interesting, relevant, and of note for an audience while being as open and as honest as we can.”

Because of his huge following, Kennedy was able to make the move to Twitter and Facebook live streams fairly easily. His team could share content through social channels, knowing there would be a ready audience eager to share it. For an undecided voter logging on, Kennedy feels like a celebrity — the same halo effect you might get from a cheering crowd at a rally.

For up-and-coming candidates, it’s an entirely different story. Without the pull of a celebrity endorsement or a large following to amplify posts, campaigns are left trying to work the algorithm or paying to boost posts and ads.

As any would-be influencer knows, that can be a risky game. “For those candidates in less closely watched races, they can’t build up a Twitter following overnight,” Spiers said. “And you can’t buy your way into it as much as people think you can.”

For campaigns, the result is a scramble to take every advantage of platforms’ various quirks. “There’s a way to hack the [Twitter] algorithm through posting time and through content,” Sahlin, Gagarin’s communications director, said. “We’re trying to feed a diet of useful stuff and a diet of what I call ‘trash tweets’ which is easily digestible Twitter candy that will feed the algorithm a little bit.”

But with every politician, insurgents and incumbents, spending more and more time online, it’s harder for smaller accounts to go viral. “Having to break through the noise was more difficult than it was before,” Sahlin said.

It’s especially hard on a shoestring budget. Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee (NDTC), said that “the vast majority of the half a million elected offices around the country are on campaigns are run on $2,500, maybe $5,000 or less,” He continued, “These people don’t have a national platform or following.” Without millions of dollars in the bank, it’s hard for campaigns to even reach their constituents’ news feeds.

Before the pandemic, Dietrich’s workshops spanned the gamut of campaign activities, but lately, he’s transitioned into teaching candidates how to connect with voters over the internet. Attendance for these workshops has gone through the roof as social distancing restrictions have gone into effect, with hundreds of candidates all across the country tuning in to Zoom lessons on how to grow followings and create helpful content as they continue to campaign throughout the summer.

Kiani Gardner leans on her history as a professor to inform voters about the coronavirus pandemic.

Most campaigns aim for something that’s authentic to the candidate but packaged for the platform. Kiani Gardner, a first-time political candidate competing in the Democratic primary runoff for Alabama’s first district, is taking a particularly unusual approach. A PhD cell biologist and professor, Gardner has set up her campaign’s social media channels as a rare reliable source of information for her constituency during the pandemic.

“There was so much misinformation and people just weren’t sure what to believe,” Gardner said in an interview with The Verge. “So I took out two whiteboards and they had precinct data on them, so I wiped them off and went into a corner of HQ and just talked about the virus and what was actually happening.”

That kind of whiteboard explainer can do surprisingly well on Facebook. Gardner’s first video was shot in one take and brought in more than 6,000 views. After that, campaign staff resolved to do more. Gardner’s Facebook page has gained around 2,300 followers since she launched her campaign last summer, but her videos bring in an unusually high number of viewers compared to her small following.

Connecting constituents with accurate information and resources during the pandemic has become a common theme in campaigns over the last few weeks. Gardner’s father runs an upholstery business and plans to help craft and distribute masks for constituents the campaign identifies needs them during phone banking shifts.

Meanwhile, Gagarin’s team, short on financial resources, has been making calls to check in with voters and connect them with food delivery programs. “A couple of these elderly folks just want to have a conversation, and they felt much better afterward,” Sahlin said.

For now, those phone conversations and virtual town halls are all campaigns have during the pandemic. Staff can parse through analytics and watch audience and engagement numbers rise with each post, but there’s no way to predict the numbers that will come in later this year at the ballot box. It’s hard to know how many of your followers will stay with you off the platform — in this case, from Instagram to in-person voting — but Gagarin’s team feels confident they can make the leap.

“When it comes down to it, whether turnout is low or high, we’re confident in our ability to get our voters out,” Sahlin said.

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