Will Influencers Make Any Difference This Election?
When Michael Bloomberg announced his presidential run, there was a real feeling that he had the money and media savvy to basically strong-arm his way into the nomination. What actually happened, of course, was a lackluster run that ended almost before it began. While massive amounts of money is a prerequisite for running for office these days, Bloomberg single-handedly demonstrated that money alone cannot win people over. And when his campaign fizzled, so did another idea: That influencers would make a difference in this election.
Bloomberg’s brief campaign found no shortage of things to throw money at, including paid endorsements from influencers. It failed to resonate with voters and even led to accounts being suspended for manipulation. On Instagram, Bloomberg sponsored posts on meme accounts, and it went over like a lead balloon.
Since then, attempts at youth outreach have been largely left in the hands of non-partisan voter registration groups like HeadCount. While many have lamented the lack of engagement from the campaign on apps like TikTok, can we really trust Biden’s campaign to do better than Bloomberg’s? When Biden was the gaffe-happy uncle to Obama’s competent straight man, we could laugh at the various meme-able moments in his career. But Diamond Joe doesn’t fit with the Biden we know in 2020: A career politician whom an otherwise divided Democratic party rallied behind. Even organic memes, like the Pence Fly, feel tired. We’re all exhausted and scared, and attempts to make Biden feel cool rather than our last (and not very inspiring) hope against fascism, ring hollow. (Looking at you, Biden Beauty.)
Voter engagement feels like an election cycle-only proposition for many in the Democratic establishment. Meanwhile, far-right social media has worked overtime, aided by algorithms like YouTube’s, to radicalize the otherwise politically unengaged. You can’t buy or meme that energy in a few months leading up to a campaign. It doesn’t help that the Democratic establishment is largely dismissive of authentic online momentum. Members of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has seen growth since 2016, especially during the pandemic, have a strong Twitter presence. Many left-leaning voters who aren’t active members of the DSA still respond positively to their causes, like Medicare for All. Yet Democrats have been slow to take up their causes, if they take them up at all. Nancy Pelosi endorsing the doomed Joe Kennedy III over internet-favorite Ed Markey seems like a good encapsulation of the establishment response. Politicians that have been able to successfully use the internet to their advantage, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are still seen as outsiders rather than the future of the party.
The Biden campaign could also be neglecting the youth vote simply because they don’t it as much as some assume. His numbers are strong among older Americans, and not just because of Trump’s response to the pandemic. Electioneering has become increasingly gamified as polling numbers and swing states play larger and larger roles in messaging and campaigning. If the youth aren’t needed, they can be ignored for another cycle. Lifelong membership to the Democratic party, or commitment to leftist ideals, can’t be manufactured in a few memes or sponsored posts. But instead of trying something different, it seems many Democrats aren’t willing to try anything new at all.