Bernie Sanders has officially suspended his bid for the Democratic nomination for president. After getting steamrolled in a series of state primaries by former vice president Joe Biden, the Vermont senator and former front-runner accepted the reality that the contest was effectively over. “I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win,” Sanders said in a livestream to more than 100,000 onlookers.
The digital format of the announcement—Sanders, alone, speaking into the camera, without the throngs of young supporters who might otherwise have attended his farewell speech—was a consequence of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But it was also appropriate in its own way. Sanders has been making the same policy arguments for a half century, but his presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 were among the most technologically innovative in history. He may not have fully delivered the “political revolution” he so often promised, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t revolutionize politics.
“In so many ways, Bernie Sanders’ run in 2016 and, less so, in 2020, cemented the fact that insurgent candidates running a strong, robust challenge to institutionally validated candidates can use the internet as an extremely powerful tool,” says Daniel Kreiss, a professor of political communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (The distinction: By 2020, Sanders was less of an insurgent.) “To translate energy and enthusiasm into very real, very concrete, and very powerful electoral resources.”
Sanders wasn’t the first insurgent candidate to make creative use of digital technology, of course. Howard Dean used Meetup in 2004. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign tapped into emerging tools to achieve unprecedented email outreach. But those were ages ago, in tech years. As much as any political figure, Sanders showed how politics could work in the age of YouTube, Instagram, and the smartphone.
That prowess starts with social media. Beginning with his run against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Sanders has relied on a massive Facebook following and targeted Facebook ads to build an enormous email list. Those techniques—which Donald Trump, another former outsider, has also deployed to dramatic effect—allowed Sanders to raise a war chest surpassing his rivals’ while spurning fundraisers and wealthy donors. (In his speech today, Sanders thanked supporters for making 10 million contributions, at an average donation of $18.50.) His 2020 campaign fastidiously livestreamed all of his appearances across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and—in a nod to the candidate’s appeal among younger voters—Twitch, which also hosted his concession speech. A Sanders rally might draw a few thousand people in person but could reach hundreds of thousands online. The campaign told The Washington Post in March that, of 57 million Facebook Live views for Democratic primary candidates over the previous year, the Sanders campaign accounted for 54 million.
“The smartest thing that the Sanders campaign did was to invest in building an owned media infrastructure to reach their own supporters where they thought they would be,” says Kyle Tharp, the vice president of communications at Acronym, a Democratic digital communications organization. “They calculated very early on that the media would not give them a fair shake, and so they built their own.” He adds, “I think the livestreaming of campaign events is going to become a major best practice.”
But while Sanders’ social media presence has gotten the most attention, his embrace of distributed organizing—using technology to enlist and manage an army of volunteers—might prove even more influential in the long run. “I think those almost-more-boring tools for organizing are the Sanders legacy and have become really important and fundamental to campaigning,” says Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a Fordham professor who studies the use of digital communication in politics.
A Digital Army
Those innovations started back in 2015, during the first Sanders presidential campaign. They were born, as always, of necessity.
“We had 100,000 people sign up to volunteer on day one,” says Kenneth Pennington, the digital director for the first Sanders campaign. Pennington fought for permission to hire one organizer: Zack Exley, a veteran of progressive politics. It didn’t go smoothly at first. “He asked me, OK, now I need to hire a team of organizers who will help put all these volunteers to work.’” Pennington says. “I said, ‘You don’t understand—I only have a budget for you, and I had to put my ass on the line to get you hired.’ And he quit on day one.’”
Exley remembers things slightly differently. “I almost quit,” he says. “I had been talking all this shit for years, decades even, about how internet technology, wisely used, could empower huge numbers of volunteers to accomplish great things. And so I came in with a positive attitude the next day and got to work.”
The first challenge was mundane: responding to the emails pouring into the campaign account.
“We literally had millions of emails coming in—not even exaggerating, millions—and it was just this huge backlog,” says Exley. “Including many thousands of offers to donate large amounts of money.” Unable to afford a help desk, Exley put word out to the campaign’s email list announcing a conference call for anyone who wanted to pitch in. Soon Exley had a team who would take over the backlog. He set them up with a Slack channel and the password to the campaign email account and let them get to work.
“I was kind of shocked by that idea,” says Pennington. “But it turned out to be the best idea of all time. It led to us doing that with more of that stuff. Instead of having staff host phone banks, we’re going to make it so everyone can host phone banks. Instead of staff hosting canvasses, everyone can host a canvass.” Each time, the campaign followed a similar script: Reach out to supporters, host a conference call with those interested in helping on a new project, and then have them organize in Slack.
The ethos of distributed organizing came to permeate everything Sanders did across his two campaigns—and has influenced the way politics is practiced, especially on the left. The campaign’s Field the Bern app, created by volunteers in early 2016, anticipated the rise of so-called relational organizing apps like Team and Outvote that allow campaign volunteers to canvass their existing friend and family networks. Mobilize, an events platform launched in 2017 and now used by nearly every Democratic campaign, helps supporters find opportunities to volunteer and host their own. And the campaign was one of the first to seriously embrace peer-to-peer texting, now a nearly ubiquitous technique.
To be clear, even Sanders alumni don’t claim to have reinvented politics. “It’s just organizing—it’s field organizing,” says Pennington. “The idea of field organizing was always, you hire a staffer who’s hyperefficient at outsourcing their own work to volunteers, and they outsource their work to even more volunteers, and you have volunteers recruiting volunteers recruiting volunteers. I just think some of the folks who worked on the 2016 campaign figured out really good digital ways to do that.”
“We saw this very much in 2016 and again in 2020: They didn’t forget about the old-school stuff,” says Daniel Kreiss. “They had an on-the-ground presence that really was fueled by that digital organizing capacity.” But that wouldn’t have been possible if the campaign’s message didn’t inspire so many people to help out in the first place. “I think they were really smart on capitalizing on their most important asset, which was the candidate himself.”
What Comes Next
Of course, Sanders didn’t actually win. His abrupt defeat to Biden after carrying early primary states and a colossal fundraising advantage is a reminder that elections are about much more than campaign tactics—digital or otherwise. Biden, who by all accounts was running a skeletal operation, benefited from heavy name recognition, his association with Barack Obama, and influential endorsements. Perhaps most important of all was the surge in positive media attention he drew following his landslide victory in the South Carolina primary.
“The story that’s shaping up here is that for all the digital media tools out there, all the fundraising and organizing you can do, all of that matters—but the thing that matters more than we ever think is crafting, shaping, influencing, manipulating media narratives,” says David Karpf, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
It would be a mistake to write off Sanders’ tactical revolution, however. As has been observed countless times, the self-described democratic socialist launched himself from obscurity to coming pretty darn close to winning the nomination in successive races. And while he came up short both times, he has yanked the party’s ideological center of gravity sharply leftward. It’s largely thanks to him that Biden will no doubt run on the most progressive platform in decades. In his announcement, Sanders said he would remain on the ballot, continuing to amass delegates in order to carry as much weight as possible at the Democratic National Convention in August.
And while campaign tactics might get swamped by other factors at the presidential level, that’s less true the further you go down the ballot. In lower-profile races, where name recognition, media coverage, and funding are all harder to come by, the use of Sanders-style digital techniques is far likelier to move the needle. That’s especially true now that the coronavirus pandemic has forced all campaigning to be digital for the foreseeable future.
So we’re about to get a better sense of how powerful digital campaign innovations really are. Sanders-style video content and livestreaming has boosted up-and-comers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke, but it might not move the needle for the vast majority of politicians who lack their charisma. Not everybody will be able to run a Sanders-style campaign, but more people will try.
“It was not long ago that people considered these ideas radical and fringe,” Sanders said in his announcement today, referring to policy objectives like a $15 minimum wage and tuition-free higher education. “Today they are mainstream ideas.” The observation applies nearly as well to the techniques that helped Sanders push those ideas into the mainstream in the first place.
He is unlikely to stop that effort. “While this campaign is coming to an end, our movement is not,” he said today. “Please stay in this fight with me. Let us go forward together. The struggle continues.” Sanders still has things to say—and, with that massive email list and a ready-made digital infrastructure, he can make sure his followers continue to get the message.