About 120 people showed up for Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s recent town hall, his first since losing his U.S. Senate race. The Texas Democrat then went home to live-stream himself cooking a chicken dinner with his wife, daughter and their pet snake, Monty.
That 45-minute broadcast attracted 257,000 views on Facebook — along with more than 12,400 comments.
Presidential aspirants, take heed: The 2020 campaign, which is poised to kick into high gear next year with dozens of potential candidates, will take place in a media landscape that has shifted in just the past two years and been radically transformed since the 2008 primary sesaon, which began before the release of the first iPhone.
Iowa hay-bale speeches and cable news primary debates will still play a role. But Democratic strategists say the quest to capture the attention of Democrats online, through social streams and viral sharing that exude a sense of immediacy and authenticity, could dominate the early months in a crowded field, as energized voters subscribe and swipe in search of a candidate match.
“It’s not going to be like anything we have seen before,” said one Democratic strategist preparing a 2020 campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. “The digital front-runner is going to win the nomination. That goes to both fundraising and it goes to content delivery.”
Few moments will be too private, no topic will be off-limits, and the ability to project emotion and enthusiasm, even in the face of an awkward handheld selfie taken in a moving car or on a windy street corner, is likely to be prized above all.
Get ready for a new era in which potential presidential candidates will routinely share photos of their chance encounters or kitchen creations on Instagram — as Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) did with her Thanksgiving turkey, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) did with her stuffing, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) did with his husband’s pie in recent weeks. Prepare for many more obligatory car ride live streams and inspirational quotations and poetry, as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has been posting on Instagram over the past year.
“Wrong, temporarily victorious / Is never greater than Right, forever vigilant,” read one original Booker lyric he posted in September, earning 34,000 retweets and almost 129,000 likes on Twitter.
Others, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), are well on their way to creating entirely independent in-house news channels, sometimes traveling the country with professional crews who provide multicamera setups and polished feeds that get stream counts in the hundreds of millions.
“A Democrat needs to be able to basically create an alternative media ecosystem to get their messages out,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, who now co-hosts Pod Save America, a liberal podcast. “We did not figure that out in 2016 and we have to figure that out in 2020.”
The current king of political social media, President Trump, uses Twitter daily with his unique vernacular to try to shape the news cycle, often with false or provocative claims that have the added benefit of getting coverage from traditional news outlets. Democratic strategists uniformly agree this approach will not work their candidates, who seek to introduce themselves to the country as more than just opponents or imitators of the president.
“People say Trump is masterful at dominating the press via Twitter. Really, he is masterful at dominating the press by being outrageous,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Democrats should look at social media as their way of telling their own story, not a means of competing for attention with Trump. They will fail at that.”
The candidates also have to find a way to craft their messages to fit the mediums where they are publishing. “The real shift has to do with how do you relate to people in a way that meets their expectations right now,” said Teddy Goff, a senior digital strategist for the presidential campaigns of Clinton and Obama. “A phony stock footage political ad is going to look really discordant next to a funny story about the weekend from your best friend.”
Several unannounced Democratic campaigns have been looking to the example of two standout Democratic social media stars from the 2018 cycles — O’Rourke, who is weighing his own presidential run, and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
O’Rourke became a viral phenom during the campaign, raising $38 million between July and September in appeals so based around his own voice he insisted on personally writing the fundraising emails in his own name. Usually, the missives are consigned to assistants who employ numbingly similar appeals.
Since winning her race in New York’s 14th Congressional District, Ocasio-Cortez has been recording and posting to her approximately 1 million Instagram followers a blow-by-blow account of her time in Washington, from getting lost in the U.S. Capitol complex, to caucus orientation rooms, to her late-night lip-syncing of a Kanye West song as she walks the streets of Capitol Hill. She also has engaged in rapid-fire Twitter combat with critics.
But such approaches may not translate easily to candidates less comfortable with an arm’s-length camera or snappy thumbs. “I am lucky to work with somebody who feels okay being authentic and is able to do it,” says Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez. “She is getting a lot of engagement.”
Other candidates, who are less familiar with the always-streaming approach to daily life, have taken a more traditional approach to creating their own media channels. Former vice president Joe Biden tried out a now-lapsed podcast, offering a few minutes of daily headlines read by others after his own recorded introduction. It was called “Biden’s Briefing.”
More recently, he has recorded highly produced YouTube monologues, sliced with graphics, photos from his political career and stock footage, about his views on key issues for Attn:, a social media video company. Called “Here’s the Deal,” the videos regularly grab more than 100,000 views on Facebook.
Probably the largest independent media operation belongs to Sanders, who invested heavily in creating his content around issues after the 2016 election. He started a podcast, “The Bernie Sanders Show,” booked a public event series and hired a video team that has attracted 1.5 billion views on Facebook and 148 million more on Twitter. (Both platforms count a “view” after a user watches three seconds or more of a video.)
In 2017 alone, Sanders’s official Senate office produced 550 online videos, more than one a day on average, often under the guidance of Armand Aviram, a former producer of NowThisNews, which pioneered an entire aesthetic of text-laden online video for millennials. The videos, overlaid with flashy text and musical scores, only occasionally feature Sanders on camera.
Other potential candidates, including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Warren, have been traveling with photo and video teams to produce content for platforms such as Instagram.
One recent Warren video, a recorded FaceTime call, congratulated her former student Katie Porter for winning a House race in California. Rather than a candid video in the style of O’Rourke or Ocasio-Cortez, the exchange was shot with at least two camera operators, apparently in Warren’s home, and then edited.
Potential candidates are also investing heavily in the most traditional form of candidate content creation, the pre-presidential campaign book. Sanders released his latest — “Where We Go From Here” — in November, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro is in stores with his tome, “An Unlikely Journey,” and Bloomberg plans to release a new edition of his memoir, “Bloomberg by Bloomberg,” on Dec. 11, with new chapters on his recent political efforts.
Another round of book releases is being planned for early next year, with accompanying multicity tours that could be used to build presidential campaign buzz. They include new volumes from Harris, Buttigieg and former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz.
“Books are like the new podcast — everybody just has to have one,” jokes Matt McKenna, an adviser to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is also considering a presidential campaign, despite no announced plans for a book or a podcast.
But Bullock did take time with his wife and three children over Thanksgiving to snap a group selfie, which was then distributed over his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.