Media Coverage

A Digital Revolution? Sanders Reinvents the Online Campaign

For months after announcing his White House bid, Bernie Sanders didn’t run a single campaign commercial on television. But he was everywhere online: emails, social media posts and paid ads on desktop computers and mobile devices.

Sanders has spent $10 million building a presence on the Internet, more than anyone else running for president this year. While the Vermont senator has hardly turned his back on TV, he’s betting that the voters most likely to embrace his vision for the country are online, not in front of a 50” flat-screen.

His goal is no different than what candidates have tried to do for decades – identify likely supporters and motivate them to turn out on Election Day. But Sanders’ commitment to the individualized and highly targeted voter contact made possible by the internet puts him on the leading edge of political campaigning.

To a lesser degree, Hillary Clinton is forging a similar path. She spent early and often on traditional methods – $12 million on television and $6 million on direct mail through December. But her campaign also set aside at least $6 million for online advertising leading up to early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Republicans, on the other hand, have so far spent comparatively little on digital outreach. Some GOP candidates, like Ben Carson and Donald Trump, are using social media to corral enthusiasm for their campaigns. The others have largely relied on super PACs, and nearly half the $8 million they spent online came from groups that support Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But for many political strategists, Sanders’ approach represents the future. In fact, his campaign evokes a kind of envy among tech-savvy consultants on the right. They express frustration – and more than a little self-interest – that their candidates remain so enamored with television ads that are seen by fewer people every election cycle.

In 2014, Targeted Victory, a tech company that works with Republicans – its client list includes Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign – compiled data that showed 29 percent of viewers go as long as a week without watching live television. Lenny Alcivar, a digital strategist at the firm, says Democrats have recognized this reality. Republicans? Not so much.

“Bernie Sanders was smart to say, ‘Forget about broadcasting on WMUR,’” Alcivar says. “The eyeballs are on phones and tablets these days, and any campaign or candidate that forgets that does so at their peril.”