NEW YORK – Until this past week, Bernie Sanders’s digital strategy – to convert the enthusiastic and curious into volunteers and eventually voters – played out in Twitter posts straight from his long, policy-driven speeches and videos explaining income and wealth inequality.
Then he joined Snapchat, a company that claims to have an enviable share of America’s young likely voters in its audience, in a bet that the platform can help him further capitalize on his advantage with that demographic.
At first glance, the irascible Sanders seems like a strange fit for the platform, where users can send photos and short videos to their friends that later evaporate. “What is this Snapshot thing and why do I only get 10 seconds?” Sanders tweeted on Monday to announce his new account. He’s a late adopter: His Democratic rivals, Martin O'Malley and Hillary Clinton, have been on the platform for several weeks, as has every major Republican candidate except Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and Rick Santorum.
But there is some data to indicate that, while 2016 might not be the Snapchat election, it is, at least, a natural fit for a candidate such as Sanders. Thirty-seven percent of the app’s 100 million daily users are 18- to 24-year-olds, according to the company. After the Aug. 6 Republican debate, Snapchat said 18- to 24-year-olds were more likely to watch the platform’s five-minute “live story” of the debate than watch the debate live on television. Two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-old Snapchat users are likely voters and about a third of all 18- to 34-year- old likely voters use the app, according to an online poll commissioned by Snapchat and conducted by Global Strategy Group and Public Opinion Strategies from Oct. 15-25.
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“Compared to other kinds of social media, Snapchat really gives a true behind-the-scenes look at campaigns and candidates, and those campaign and candidates who use Snapchat effectively have a different avenue to reaching these likely voters,” said Robert Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies.
Unlike network television, Snapchat’s debate live stories cover the entire night, from pre-debate rally to spin room, and offer more context and humor. In one scene from the live story of the Nov. 14 Democratic debate, Snapchat head of news Peter Hamby laid out what happens in the spin room. In another clip, an enthusiastic Sanders supporter repeatedly screamed “Oh my God, oh my God” after the candidate touched her hand as he left the debate.
Sanders’s first story featured scenes from a Cleveland rally, bookended by short statements from the candidate. His second story featured aides filming a video to promote the upcoming rollout of his immigration plan.
In comparison, Clinton, who joined in early August, has been praised for her amusing account, which often features throwback photos of the candidate or images mocking her Republican opponents.
Kenneth Pennington, the Sanders campaign’s digital director, said Sanders is “uniquely positioned” to turn out young voters due to his early popularity with them. A national McClatchy-Marist poll released Nov. 13 found that while Clinton beat Sanders 57 percent to 39 percent, Sanders led among 18- to 29-year-olds 58 percent to 35 percent; he had a similar advantage among 18- to 34-year-olds in the latest Bloomberg Politics national poll published this week.
“What we’re seeing in our rallies and in social media and in every metric that’s out there is that young people are, many of them for the first time in their lives, getting really excited about the senator’s candidacy,” Pennington said. “And it’s not because the senator is some cool hip guy, it’s just because his ideas are really appealing to millennials.” Sanders will likely use the account to focus on issues young voters care about, such as college costs, LGBT rights, and racial justice, Pennington said.
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Sierra Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore journalism student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is just the sort of young voter the campaign hopes to reach. She was one of many fans who tweeted in approval of the new Snapchat account (she called it “the cutest thing ever”). In an interview, Smith said she thought the app was a good way to keep people her age informed about Sander’s campaign. She plans to vote for him in her state’s primary in March and said she probably wouldn’t go to the polls if not for him.
“I think a lot of the things that he says are things that people our age believe in, and he’s the only one who’s really just saying them,” Smith said.
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To win the nomination, Sanders has to build his base and, like President Barack Obama, turn out high numbers of young people to the polls. In 2008, the youth voter turnout rate in the Democratic primary nearly doubled from 2000, with Obama winning 60 percent of the vote, according to data compiled by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. He went on to win 66 percent of the youth vote in the general election, when at least 2 million more 18- to 29- year olds voted compared to 2004, when 19 million young voters turned out.
Sanders adviser Tad Devine said that historically, campaigns have neglected young voters, but that Obama didn’t make that mistake and neither will Sanders.
“We believe that these young people who are now supporting him in very large numbers can be persuaded to participate in large numbers as well,” Devine said, “and that can make a huge difference in terms of the outcome.”