Even now, with two early state wins and one virtual tie under its belt, and a chance to pull away from the rest of the presidential primary field on Super Tuesday, the campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has a bit of a chip on its shoulder about the way it says it’s covered by the media.
“There’s begrudging acceptance of the campaign, is the way I’d put it,” campaign manager Faiz Shakir told NPR at a crowded Las Vegas rally on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, which Sanders would go on to win by a landslide. “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.”
Running against the media is a time-honored political tradition, stretching from President Trump back to President Harry Truman and beyond. But as they plotted a second White House run early last year, Sanders’ inner circle decided to do something more with their deep skepticism of the media: They decided to effectively create their own online video network to cover their candidate.
Beginning with Sanders’ kickoff rally in Brooklyn last spring, the campaign has streamed every rally. And it’s created in-house shows starring top staffers. And while other campaigns — like those of former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — have dabbled in streaming behind-the-scenes moments, the Sanders campaign has made its livestreaming efforts a central part of its overall messaging, fundraising and organizing strategy.
Livestream videographers Chris Witschy and Aidan Barringer are always among the pocketful of staffers traveling on the same charter plane as Sanders, and always get the prime real estate at the center of the press riser at rallies. Sanders pays close attention, and often asks what the livestream numbers look like shortly after his rallies end.
The numbers are really big: more than 85 million views over the course of the campaign, spread across traditional social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, and newer, more niche platforms like the gaming network Twitch. When Sanders crisscrossed the country over Presidents’ Day weekend, his campaign noted that while he drew a total of 50,000 supporters to rallies in six states, he also pulled in more than 4 million livestream views.
“Let’s just do it on our own”
For all of its digital focus, livestreaming was not a big part of the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign. Sanders began experimenting with the format in January 2018, when he pitched TV networks on the idea of a town hall focused on his signature issue, “Medicare for All.”
Josh Miller-Lewis, at the time Sanders’ Senate communications director and now the campaign’s creative director, said Sanders pitched a TV network on the idea, but wouldn’t say which one.
“They said, ‘Oh, we’ll talk about it,’ and of course never got back to us. And so [Sanders] said, ‘You know what, let’s just do it on our own. Let’s livestream a town hall, Medicare for All. We’ll bring in experts and we’ll talk about what Medicare for All means, and we’ll talk to the American people about it.’ “
More than 1 million people streamed the forum, a number that stuck in the minds of Sanders and his advisers. They did more town halls on climate change and other topics, and as the focus turned to a second presidential run, they decided to make livestreaming a central component of the campaign.
Sanders advisers all remembered what some online supporters often angrily referred to as the “Bernie Media Blackout”: how it took until late 2015 for most major news outlets to treat Sanders as a contender, and not a gadfly.
Beyond that, they all shared a view that Sanders regularly addresses during his stump speeches: “the skepticism,” as Miller-Lewis put it, “that the media would cover the issues that Bernie cares about, that he’s talking about every single day, and that the American people care about.”
In addition to broadcasting rallies, the campaign created roundtable shows featuring staffers and volunteers, as well as produced videos and occasional town halls.
Eyeballs tracked the campaign’s overall upward trajectory. For most of 2019, streams hovered around 2 million a month. But once Sanders began gaining momentum, when New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed him after his heart attack, the average views began to climb — 6 million in November, 10 million in December, 12 million in January, according to data provided by the Sanders campaign.
“More opportunity for people to feel like they’re not alone”
All the while, video director Mia Fermindoza was sitting in a control room in Washington, D.C., experimenting with ways to increase viewing times and engagement.
Fermindoza joined the Sanders campaign from NowThis News, an online platform that’s well known for its viral progressive videos.
While directing the livestream, Fermindoza would look at the camera angles coming in from the two videographers the campaign sends to every rally. But she was more focused on what she and Miller-Lewis see as the heart of the livestream: the comments it features from viewers.
A conversation is always running along the righthand side of the stream. And with graphics that mirror cable news coverage, the campaign urges supporters to volunteer and contribute. At the bottom of the screen, a stock ticker-like chyron displays the names of people who comment or donate.
“We want to be putting out comments from people that are getting excited about donating,” Fermindoza explained. “Like, ‘Oh, next time Bernie does this, I’m throwing in 100 bucks, who wants to be top donor with me?’ This is a very gaming, Twitch-style, and we find that people want that.”
The money the livestream raises is ultimately “negligible” in the grand scheme of the Sanders campaign budget, according to Shakir, the campaign manager — $55,000 the night Sanders won Nevada, $85,000 when the campaign streamed a Strokes concert the night before the New Hampshire primary.
“It ends up covering the cost, quite frankly, of us being in these kinds of platforms, investing in the technology we need to livestream these events, and send staffers around the country to cover him,” Shakir said.
But Fermindoza argues the conversation around soliciting and trumpeting donations is far more important than the actual dollars, and gives supporters more ownership of the campaign.
“You know, how does that make you feel? How does that make you feel to see your comment up there, getting other people excited?” she said. “All we’re doing is producing more opportunity for people to feel like they’re not alone.”
An internet-fueled rise
That mindset makes sense to Daniel Kreiss, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Media and Journalism who has written two books about digital organizing on presidential campaigns. He said it all fits with the Sanders campaign mantra of, ‘not me, us.’
“And to the extent that they look to make that physical to other supporters, I think it creates that sense of collective identity — that these are Sanders people, this is the movement,” Kreiss said. “These are the people who are powering the Sanders campaign.”
Kreiss is skeptical a campaign livestream could fully replace traditional media coverage, but he doesn’t see any other campaign rivaling Sanders’ efforts on that front. He views the livestream as the latest evidence of how the internet has fueled Sanders’ rise to front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Kreiss argues the main thing the internet has done for presidential campaigns is lower the bar for outsiders like Sanders and Trump, making it easier for them to amplify their message and raise money. Kreiss says one difference between the two was Trump’s ability to set the campaign agenda every single day.
“I don’t think Sanders has ever had that absolute dominance over the public sphere,” he said. “But he has used the internet in really powerful ways to translate attention and enthusiasm into electoral resources that have fueled his two bids.”
And while the livestream won’t fully replace mainstream news outlets any time soon, it’s another way to force a campaign narrative that simply wasn’t available just a couple of presidential campaigns ago.