WASHINGTON — The headline seemed damning: “Bernie Sanders Holds Secret Campaign Meeting With 15,000 Working-Class Democratic Donors.”
But the story was just a joke on the satirical news site The Onion, and the Vermont senator and his presidential campaign saw it as an opportunity. They quickly took to social media and gave a response in jest: “No one was supposed to find out about this.”
The reply, posted in late October, racked up over 200,000 likes on Instagram.
Not bad for a septuagenarian.
Sanders, 78, the oldest candidate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, is arguably the most skilled at using Instagram, which has become the preferred social media platform for young voters. He has 3.9 million followers on Instagram, 1.8 million more than the next-highest Democratic contender on the platform, Senator Elizabeth Warren. He posts far more frequently than any top-tier candidate and has a more varied approach on Instagram than President Trump.
Sanders’ feed features a variety of sleek content, including flashy infographics and fully subtitled videos, that mirrors popular Instagram style. The campaign also isn’t afraid to lean into social media’s lighthearted language, showing Sanders and his staff are comfortable conversing in memes and self-aware quips.
“Bernie sees social media as an incredibly powerful tool to communicate directly with voters,” said Josh Miller-Lewis, digital communications director for the Sanders campaign. Though Sanders has a social media staff, he regularly writes his own posts, Miller-Lewis said.
With social media becoming an increasingly vital political tool, Democratic presidential candidates are using carefully crafted statements, skillfully edited photos, and curated debate snippets to try to capture the public’s fleeting attention. The competition for viral moments often takes place on Instagram, outside of Trump’s ever-present shadow on Twitter.
Instagram’s popularity has exploded in the last few years, particularly among people ages 18 to 29. Two-thirds of them say they use Instagram, dwarfing the 38 percent who say they use Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center. Those young voters made up roughly 20 percent of the electorate in 2016 and are expected to again be a key voting bloc next year.
“It’s not enough to be ‘presidential,’ in 2019; candidates have to prove that they’re ‘cool’ enough, too — and nothing screams that a candidate is plugged into progress, innovation, and a forward-thinking America than technological sophistication, as demonstrated through their social media comfort level,” said Kerric Harvey, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Each Democratic candidate has a distinct calling card on Instagram. Sanders brings the memes. Warren posts videos of her calls with lucky supporters. Former vice president Joe Biden shares pictures of himself with Barack Obama. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg posts photos of his dogs.
The youngest candidate in the race, Buttigieg, 37, is part of the generation that came of age with Facebook and Twitter. But when it comes to the volume of Instagram content, there’s no contest between him and Sanders. Since the beginning of September, Sanders’ campaign has posted more than six times more frequently than Buttigieg’s.
Unlike Sanders’ Instagram feed, Buttigieg’s eschews infographics, fund-raising requests, and policy rollouts, almost exclusively posting pictures of him on the campaign trail or with his dogs, Buddy and Truman. He uses Instagram to allow people to get a more personal glimpse into his life, said Chris Meager, Buttigieg’s campaign press secretary.
Instagram “offers a glimpse into who Pete is, and we have Facebook and we have Twitter where we can dig a little deeper into policy,” Meager said. “Instagram is very visual. And so it gives us an opportunity to use that to show behind-the-scenes content.”
Instagram use is evolving for political campaigns, with many campaigns increasingly focusing on producing videos for it. Miller-Lewis said video, and particularly live video, wasn’t “really a part of the equation in 2016.”
Now, videos are especially popular among young people. They flocked to Sanders’ campaign in the last presidential election cycle and he’s a favorite again among voters 18 to 29 years old, consistently the first or second choice among the age group in recent polling.
Sanders’ campaign is expanding its use of social media to reach new voters, Miller-Lewis said. In June, the campaign created a channel on Twitch, a live-streaming site popular with video-game players.
“We’re hoping that we reach new people who aren’t necessarily involved in the political process already, who aren’t going to tune into politics or read about politics on the Internet, but now see Bernie Sanders on Twitch and think, ‘Maybe I should take a look and see what he’s all about,’ ” Miller-Lewis said.
The only other campaigns on Twitch are those of Democrat Andrew Yang and Trump. But Trump is more at home on Twitter, where he has a significant advantage over the Democratic field because of his 67 million followers. Sanders leads the Democrats with 10 million.
Trump, though, makes only limited use of Instagram.
A prominent Instagram tactic — used often by the Sanders and Biden campaigns — is cross-promoting tweets via screenshots, a move that would seemingly be in Trump’s wheelhouse given his frequent tweeting. But Trump rarely uses Instagram that way. Additionally, he doesn’t provide subtitles for many of his videos, eschewing a standard practice that allows users scrolling through content without headphones to understand what’s going on.
Trump’s lack of polish on Instagram may be designed to bolster his populist image, said Jesse Baldwin-Philippi, an associate professor in the Communications and Media Studies Department at Fordham University who studied campaign social media use leading up to the 2016 election. She noted a lack of stylistic cohesion on Trump’s Instagram account during that time, including using at least 25 different fonts in campaign graphics.
“It’s strange and different,” Baldwin-Philippi said. “There’s something to be said for the aesthetics, of thinking about what amateurism signals and how that aligns with a populist message, this campaign value of being an outsider rather than part of a machine.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about its social media strategy.
Sanders’ early days on Instagram mirrored Trump’s amateur quality. The senator’s campaign posted photos of him on the campaign trail that were often grainy and out of focus, and there was little variation in the type of content.
To succeed in spreading their messages, candidates also need a social media campaign that can be amplified by supporters, Harvey said. Sanders does this well, with a large number of his social media followers retweeting, liking, and sharing his content. From Oct. 28 to Nov. 27, the Sanders campaign said, its Instagram posts had nearly 9.5 million combined likes and comments, far more total interactions than any other Democratic candidate on the platform during that period.
“Sanders can depend on his support base to do that social media work for him in a way that previous presidential candidates had to pay people to do,” Harvey said.
Still, it’s unclear how those interactions translate to tangible campaign support like contributions, volunteers, and votes. But experts said a cohesive social media strategy is increasingly important — something Miller-Lewis said the Sanders campaign fully understands.
“You cannot defeat Trump if you can’t compete with him on social media,” Miller-Lewis said.
Ryan Wangman can be reached at email@example.com .