Online Video Network Is Key To Sanders' Campaign Strategy

Mar 3, 2020
Originally published on March 3, 2020 9:59 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Senator Bernie Sanders has had a long career, and during it, he's made clear that he doesn't always trust the mainstream news media. Now he's running for president for a second time, and instead of just complaining about news coverage, his campaign has built what is effectively its own online video network. It's now a central part of his strategy. Here's NPR's Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Even now with Sanders the front-runner ahead of crucial Super Tuesday voting, his campaign still has a bit of a chip on its shoulder about how it's covered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FAIZ SHAKIR: There's begrudging acceptance of the campaign is the way I'd put it.

DETROW: That's campaign manager Faiz Shakir, speaking to NPR at a rally the night before Sanders would win the Nevada caucuses by a landslide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHAKIR: Part of that is because it's an anti-establishment campaign. And for some people in the, quote-unquote, "establishment," it feels like a personal affront to them.

DETROW: Among key Sanders advisers, it's a mainstay of thought that he was underestimated and undercovered for much of the 2016 primary. After that, they began experimenting with livestreaming town halls on issues like health care and climate change. And starting with Sanders' kickoff rally in Brooklyn last year, the campaign just broadcast every campaign event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: Brooklyn, thank you.

(CHEERING)

DETROW: This isn't the behind-the-scenes streaming embraced by other candidates like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. The Sanders livestream team is at every single rally with two cameras in order to shoot different angles. The campaign also produces its own show, starring staffers like Briahna Joy Gray.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: We're trying something new here today. I think this is the first time a campaign has ever certainly gone on a Twitch stream...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello, Twitch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: First time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

GRAY: ...And done its own kind of like a spin room.

DETROW: The videos have gone everywhere, from traditional social media sites like Facebook and YouTube to, as mentioned there, newer sites like gaming-focused Twitch. Josh Miller-Lewis is the campaign's creative director.

JOSH MILLER-LEWIS: You can look at what he is doing now with livestreaming in the context of what he was doing as a mayor in the 1980s with a public access show.

DETROW: The show was called "Sanders Speaks To The Community" (ph). Last year, "The Daily Show" mined its archives for laughs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: Sometimes, he would just ambush random kids who were standing on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BERNIE SPEAKS TO THE COMMUNITY")

SANDERS: So what do you kids think of these new trees?

DETROW: After leaving the rally, Sanders often immediately asks what the livestream stats are. And lately, those numbers are topping 12 million a month. During every 2020 campaign rally, technical director Mia Fermindoza is back in Washington, D.C., watching from a control room. Fermindoza is looking for the right shots, but she's mostly focused on moderating the comments and donations that are coming in live from supporters and being highlighted on the screen.

MIA FERMINDOZA: With donations, we want to be putting out comments from people that are getting excited about donating. Like, oh, like, next time Bernie does this, like, I'm throwing in a hundred bucks. Like, you know, who wants to be top donor with me? Like, this is a very gaming Twitch-friendly sort of style. And we find that people want that.

DETROW: In the grand scheme of the Sanders budget, the money raised by the livestream is what the campaign calls negligible, something like $50,000 on a big day like Nevada, enough to cover the livestream costs. Fermindoza says it's about more than the money.

FERMINDOZA: All we're doing is producing more opportunity for people to feel like they're not alone.

DETROW: She says the graphics are much more about building a community around the campaign.

FERMINDOZA: You know, how does that make you feel? How does that make you feel to see your comment up there and getting other people excited?

DETROW: That approach makes sense to Daniel Kreiss, a UNC political scientist who studies online political organizing. He says it all fits with the Sanders campaign mantra of not me, us.

DANIEL KREISS: And to the extent that they look to make that visible to other supporters, I think it creates that sense of collective identity that these are Sanders people. This is the movement. These are the people who are powering the Sanders campaign.

DETROW: Kreiss says the main thing the Internet has done for presidential campaigns is lower the bar for outsiders like Donald Trump or Sanders, making it easier for them to amplify their message and raise money.

KREISS: He has used the Internet in really powerful ways to translate attention and enthusiasm into electoral resources that have fueled his two bids. And I think we're seeing that in a big way right now in 2020.

DETROW: If Sanders opens up a big delegate lead in today's primary, online organizing will be a major - maybe the major - reason why. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.