Bernie Sanders may trail Hillary Clinton by double digits in New Hampshire, but he leads the Democratic front-runner by more than 4,000 “points” on Twitter.
Between June 25 and July 1, the most popular hashtag associated with the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign, “#feelthebern,” was tweeted an average of 6,800 times-a-day, while “#hillary2016” garnered 2,700 tweets, according to Topsy, which tracks activity on social media.
The insurgent candidate’s campaign picked up some momentum over the past week, too. Last Wednesday, Sanders made headlines by drawing 10,000 supporters to a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin – the largest crowd assembled by any candidate so far this year. The following day, his campaign announced that it had raised $15 million since April 30, and a Quinnipiac poll showed Sanders gaining ground in the early voting state of Iowa.
Still, by the candidate’s own estimation, it would take nothing short of a “political revolution” for Sanders to win the 2016 Democratic primary. Unable to compete with Clinton in fundraising or name recognition, Sanders will need to make social media fervor matter more than it ever has in an American election.
Winnie Wong and Charles Lenchner are spearheading that “revolution.” Veteran political organizers, Wong and Lenchner created the #feelthebern hashtag and co-founded People for Bernie Sanders, a digital platform where the senator’s supporters can network and organize outreach efforts both online and off. Through those efforts, People For Bernie has already enlisted 10,000 campaign volunteers, according to its organizers.
Wong believes that social media will play a greater role in 2016 than it has in any prior election.
“While I enjoy Quinnipiac polls, and watch them closely, I think there’s a huge piece of data that they miss,” Wong told msnbc. “In 2015, we have huge numbers of people taking to the internet to discuss everything. And those conversations will affect the outcome of the 2016 elections.”
To put Sanders at the center of those conversations, People for Bernie works with data analysts to track the success of their hashtags and map the reach of their most influential Twitter supporters.
But behind such technical pursuits is an idealistic faith in the power of social media to expand democratic engagement – faith born of Wong and Lechner’s experiences in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in 2011.
“Many of us are graduates of Occupy Wall Street,” Lenchner told msnbc. “And we feel like there’s an enormous cohort of people that are disillusioned with the limited range of choices in American politics. We’re committed to expanding the number and kinds of people that assert their power within the democratic system.”
“Bernie is taking donations from people and from unions. There’s no bull****. He’s raising money from people, not corporations,” Wong added.
To get a sense of the kind of anti-corporate voter that Wong and Lenchner wish to reach, Google the name “Killer Mike.”
People For Bernie first reached out to the rapper from the popular group Run The Jewels in late May, tweeting to his account, “We hope that you decide to #feeltheBern. Any Q’s feel free to hit us up.”
Killer Mike – whose actual name is Michael Render – invited them to send more information. People for Bernie provided him with campaign memes and links to articles about Sanders’ policy positions.
Last Monday, Killer Mike endorsed Sanders for president, telling his 149,000 Twitter followers, “I cannot support another Clinton or Bush ever. I am beginning to see American political families like monarchs and I have no affection for monarchs.”
The fact that Sanders – the 2016 campaign’s oldest candidate – is beloved on social media would seem more ironic if it weren’t so familiar. In both 2008 and 2012, the elderly libertarian Rep. Ron Paul enjoyed a similarly energetic online following, while drawing similarly large, impassioned crowds to his campaign events. But that enthusiastic support proved too narrow to carry Paul anywhere near his party’s nomination.
Some have called Sanders the left-wing version of Paul, and expect his campaign to run a similar course. But Lenchner argues that there’s a key distinction between the two candidates – unlike Paul, Sanders’ central policy positions actually enjoy broad public support.
“Ron Paul’s signature’s issue was the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, and I would say that’s esoteric for most people,” Lenchner said. “That’s of a different caliber than Bernie’s issues – There’s too much inequality. We should take care of our veterans. We should allow our students to graduate without being in debt servitude. These are not complicated issues to explain.”
Still, Lenchner doesn’t mind the comparison with the Paul campaign. While the former Texas congressman failed to win his party’s nomination, Lenchner believes his candidacy helped promote a libertarian view of criminal justice reform that has since gained traction within the GOP.
Ultimately, Wong and Lenchner are as concerned with promoting Sanders’ policies as they are with promoting his candidacy. Both are veterans of the campaign to draft Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the Democratic presidential primary race, and believe that the threat of her candidacy forced Clinton to run on a significantly more progressive platform in 2016 than she did in 2008.
Sanders’ candidacy has already brought mainstream media attention to proposals like free public college and a 90% top marginal tax-rate – policies that were far outside the left-pole of the 2012 debate.
“The traditional political game is one in which we’re presented with a really narrow range of options,” Lenchner said. “And expanding that range isn’t a strategy in order to do something – it’s one of the goals of politics itself.”
Correction: This article originally misidentified Winnie Wong.