On Wednesday, the field director for Mel Gagarin’s shirtless congress campaign – lit by candlelight – sat in his bathtub and read a scary story about Instagram Live.
“Bedtime bathing stories“Have become regular events for Gagarin’s campaign, even if it is only intended 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 his Candles before he ended the stream in complete darkness.
Before the pandemic broke out, Gagarin’s team planned a traditional base campaign in the sixth district of New York: knocking on doors and shaking hands at community events. Now home visits and handshakes are a risk to public health and the team was forced to put everything online. The campaign designer has saved virtual typography streams that explain the origins of the Gagarin logo. His staff often keep city halls online with voters and shoot YouTube videos on topics such as universal basic income and punk rock.
“Much of it just throws things on the wall to see what works, either from what people say they are having fun with or just to distract them,” said Sahlin. “You may have the money, but we literally have people who work ten hours a day knocking on the door for us.”
There is no playbook for a fully digital political campaign, and candidates like Gagarin had to improvise. Before the pandemic broke out, Gagarin carried out a progressive campaign at the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez base to depose Democrat Rep. Grace Meng, who has been in the House for six years, in the New York area code on June 23.
Now zoom calls have become the new rope lines, and Instagram live streams have become the hot platform for celebrities and policy discussions across the board. Facebook and Twitter are now rally phases for candidates to discuss political positions and build a following – a following that they hope will result in turnout.
To be successful on these platforms, completely different skills are required than with conventional campaigns. If your candidates don’t start with name recognition or institutional support, the only way is to create them online. And in the insane struggle for followers, campaigns behave much more like influencers.
Social distancing has already devastated the 2020 campaign cycle. It has become difficult to hold an election simply because some area codes have been compromised and others have been canceled immediately. In a memo last month, the Democratic Congress Campaign Committee urged candidates to follow the example and do “as many activities as possible” online, suggesting that they are streaming virtual city halls and online phone banks with volunteers instead of more traditional person events.
According to Elizabeth Spiers, a digital media veteran who now runs a political consultancy called The Insurrection, this confusion hurts emerging candidates the most.
“If you have a campaign that already relies heavily on messaging and voter media, this may not be a terrible situation,” said Spiers. “But if you have a grass-roots campaign that really relies on field operations to get people out and bring the candidate into the community, it’s a lot more difficult.” Candidates who are familiar with social media can broadcast some of their campaigns over the Internet. In many cases, however, they cannot even take part in the vote due to social distance orders.
For progressives, this disadvantage was driven home by the democratic presidential primaries, which ended sour and anti-climate. When the pandemic hit, Senator Bernie Sanders faced a tough fight to drop former Vice President Joe Biden and challenge the party ruling – a fight his supporters were determined to take on, even if the odds were slim. Sanders ended his campaign on April 8th and said that continuing the race “would interfere with the important work that we all need in this difficult hour.”
The most successful candidates were those who already had resources. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), a seated congressman and a member of a famous political dynasty, will remove Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) in the Massachusetts Senate primary on September 1. Markey may have stronger progressive credentials (including a coveted AOC confirmation), but you wouldn’t know it if you look on Facebook to see where Kennedy has garnered over a million followers. (He also has around 100,000 on Instagram and Twitter.) Since the pandemic started, Kennedy has checked in with constituents almost daily via Twitter, talked about current events, and town halls with famous celebrities and philanthropists such as 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 currently can’t,” said Kennedy The edge in an interview. “When our team came together to think, we decided to delve deeply into the digital space and try to create something interesting, relevant and remarkable for an audience while being as open and honest as possible.”
Because of his large fan base, Kennedy was fairly easy to switch to live Twitter and Facebook streams. His team was able to share content through social channels, knowing that there would be a willing audience that they would like to share. For an undecided voter to sign up, Kennedy feels like a celebrity – the same halo effect you could get from a cheering crowd at a rally.
For aspiring candidates, that’s a very different story. Without the consent of a celebrity or a large fan base to boost posts, campaigns are left trying to use the algorithm or paying to improve posts and ads.
As every potential influencer knows, this can be a risky game. “You can’t build Twitter overnight for candidates in less closely watched races,” said Spiers. “And you can’t buy as much as people think.”
In the case of campaigns, the result is a riddle to make optimal use of the various quirks of the platforms. “There’s a way to hack that [Twitter] Algorithm through release time and content, ”said Sahlin, communications director at Gagarin. “We’re trying to feed a diet of useful things and a diet of what I call trash tweets. This is an easily digestible Twitter candy that feeds the algorithm a bit.”
But with every politician, insurgent, and incumbent who spends more and more time online, it becomes more difficult for smaller accounts to go viral. “Breaking through the noise was more difficult than before,” said Sahlin.
It is particularly difficult to have a tight budget. Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee (NDTC), said that “the vast majority of half a million elected offices across the country operate in campaigns of $ 2,500, maybe $ 5,000 or less,” he continued people have no national platform or following. “With millions of dollars in the bank, campaigns can’t even reach their voters’s newsfeeds.
Before the pandemic, Dietrich’s workshops spanned the full range of campaign activities. However, he has recently begun teaching candidates how to connect with voters over the Internet. Participation in these workshops has increased with the entry into force of restrictions on social distancing. Hundreds of candidates across the country have had zoom lessons on growing followers and creating helpful content as they run campaigns throughout the summer.
Most campaigns target something that is authentic to the candidate but packaged for the platform. Kiani Gardner, a first-time political candidate to run in the democratic runoff for Alabama’s first district, takes a particularly unusual approach. As a cell biologist and professor with a doctorate, Gardner set up the social media channels for her campaign 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 edge. “So I took out two whiteboards and they had accurate data, so I wiped them off and went to a corner of the headquarters and just talked about the virus and what actually happened.”
This kind of whiteboard statement can work surprisingly well on Facebook. Gardner’s first video was shot in one shot and had over 6,000 views. After that, the campaign workers decided to do more. Gardner’s Facebook page has garnered around 2,300 followers since it launched its campaign last summer, but its videos attract an unusually high number of viewers compared to its small following.
Linking constituents to accurate information and resources during the pandemic has become a common theme in campaigns in recent weeks. Gardner’s father runs an upholstery business and plans to help manufacture and distribute masks for constituents, which the campaign will identify during the phone banking shift.
In the meantime, Gagarin’s team, lacking funds, has made calls to check in with voters and link them to food delivery programs. “Some of these older people just want to have a conversation and they felt much better afterwards,” said Sahlin.
These phone calls and virtual town halls are initially campaigns during the pandemic. Employees can analyze and observe how the number of viewers and engagements increases with each post. However, there is no way to predict the numbers that will be received at the ballot box later this year. It’s hard to know how many of your followers will stay with you outside of the platform – in this case from Instagram to personal voting – but Gagarin’s team is confident that they can make the leap.
“When it comes down to whether turnout is low or high, we are confident that we can get our voters out,” said Sahlin.