Bernie Sanders is pioneering the virtual campaign rally

The audience for Bernie Sanders’ rally Monday night trickled in slowly, like it does for most of his music festival-like events. Concert-style rallies have been a signature Sanders tactic throughout the campaign, drawing in young voters with acts like Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver — but the coronavirus outbreak has made that tactic unusually risky. Still, he had no trouble drawing a crowd on Monday night, as campaign surrogates made speeches lauding Sanders and his campaign’s work. Neil Young delivered a solo guitar-and-harmonica set before introducing Sanders, who was prepared to speak to his supporters about the pandemic that’s upending every inch of our daily lives.

It was the usual Bernie playbook, with one exception: the entire event took place online.

Monday night’s Sanders rally wasn’t held in any one physical space, instead taking place in the Sanders video studios and in Neil Young’s own home, on phone, tablet, and computer screens across the country. It was a prerecorded program featuring music and political messages that streamed live on nearly every platform, including Facebook, Periscope, and Twitch. That way, Sanders could reach people exactly where they are right now — at home.

“I don’t have to tell anybody that we’re living in a very unprecedented and strange moment in the history of our country,” Sanders said in his speech Monday night. “It may be a time to rethink our value system, to rethink many of the systems that we operate under.”

As social distancing rules trickle into effect across the country, political campaigns have faced hard choices, canceled rallies, and even chaotic election delays. But campaigns are also learning new ways to reach their supporters and grow their base — tricks that will be sorely needed in the months to come. No one knows precisely how long people will be asked to keep their social distance, but if online campaigning becomes routine, candidates across the country will need a new kind of online strategy to carry them to victory.

Both Sanders and Biden have held virtual campaign events over the past week, but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Even before the pandemic hit, Sanders was campaigning through nontraditional means, using a mix of social media platforms, Twitch live shows, and podcast appearances. Now, all of Sanders’ campaign events, including Monday night’s live-streamed rally or Friday’s tele-town hall, are taking place online. Biden’s team is leaning into the former vice president’s rapport with supporters, putting him on Zoom calls so he can speak one-on-one with them. But they’re playing catch up to Sanders, who has been working these platforms since the beginning.

These differences in approach were on full display over the past few days as both candidates held their first virtual town halls since the coronavirus disrupted political and civil life. The Sanders team brought theirs live on nearly every platform, including Facebook, Periscope, and Twitch. On Twitch, they topped out every other streamer in the “Just Chatting” category and ranked as the second most popular feed on the platform that night by the end of the event. Left-wing streamers like Hasan Piker and Mychal “Trihex” Jefferson recast the stream, too, providing their own commentary and thousands of additional viewers. They took questions from comment sections and Twitch chat, giving them an opportunity to vet them before they were asked.

Biden’s Zoom call was meant to be more intimate, but like so many video conferences, the call was marred with technical hiccups, including messy audio feedback that made it impossible to understand the candidate. “Mr. Biden’s speech was garbled the entire time,” the first questioner said before staff moved on to the next question. Staff didn’t vet questioners before they spoke, giving them free rein to ask or say whatever they wanted like in real life.

As more candidates move to telepresence, inexperience could mean events that look more like Biden’s Zoom call than Sanders’ jam session. “No one has cracked the code on how to move in-real-life events and activities over to the digital realm with the same impact,” said David Goldstein, the CEO of Tovo Labs, a progressive digital consulting firm. “What you should be seeing are the Biden and Sanders campaigns aggressively trying a multitude of tactics and evaluating which one of those is most effective.”

For the Sanders campaign, these online live shows are familiar territory. Even in his 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders’ staff live-streamed their events in the physical world on Facebook, taped conversations with Medicare for All advocates, and held online town halls after Trump was elected president. The result is a campaign team that’s comfortable with online gatherings — and supporters who are used to tuning in.

“We did it and got pretty good numbers,” Josh Miller-Lewis, creative and digital communications director for the Sanders campaign, told The Verge. “Ever since, we’ve been live-streaming pretty much every single event and launched our own shows from the studio in addition to the rallies.”

The Sanders approach goes beyond streaming. The campaign hosts an active Slack server of nearly 70,000 volunteers and organizers, where campaign workers can shoot out links and graphics for supporters to share online. The campaign also distributes sample messaging and mobilizes volunteers for phone and text-banking shifts. That’s useful during a normal campaign, but now that traditional door-knocking isn’t an option, it could be a vital skill for other campaigns to learn for the general election.

Earlier this month, the Sanders campaign told supporters to make their own volunteer events virtual to protect them from the virus. Staff and organizers provided them with a document explaining how to do so and listed examples of the best platforms for congregating with other volunteers to phone or text-bank together while staying at home. Sanders has even started a TikTok account. The campaign put out a call last week for supporters to send in memes and videos to be featured on the account.

“If Bernie starts to do dances on TikTok, that’s not who Bernie is. Like the ‘chilling in Cedar Rapids,’ you never see Bernie do that,” Miller-Lewis said. “So using TikTok in a way that engages with people where they are but also doing it in a way that’s true to Bernie is important.”

The rallies haven’t solved all of the Sanders campaign’s problems. Tuesday night, the campaign received disappointing primary results for the third week in a row. “Sen. Sanders is going to be having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign,” Faiz Shakir, the Bernie 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement Wednesday. But if the pandemic keeps spreading through the general election — as many experts expect it to — those rallies could provide a crucial blueprint for campaigns across the country, if not the world. For Democrats, in particular, that means learning from the unorthodox online rallies of the past week, and fast.

“A smart campaign would be investing heavily in testing and experimentation right now,” Goldstein said. “I think it’s a terrible idea for any campaign to have a ‘one way or the highway’ approach to this.”

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