Bernie Sanders is using video marketing to win Iowa caucuses

At a time when most political observers were watching the six Democratic presidential candidates on CNN during the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses, I was looking at the video marketing campaigns that they are waging on YouTube.

This may seem counter-intuitive. But, according to the Pew Research Center, only 28% of U.S. adults often get their news from cable TV. On the other hand, Pew reports that 73% of U.S. adults use YouTube. And among those who are 18- to 24-years old, 90% use YouTube. The only other social media platform that approaches YouTube in terms of its reach is Facebook, which is used by 69% of U.S. adults.

And, based on the data that you will see below, it appears that the Bernie Sanders campaign team knows how to use video marketing to win the “invisible caucus” on YouTube. And it also seems that only the Sanders team understands why winning the “invisible caucus” is one of the secrets to winning the “invisible primary,” which is one of the keys to winning the Iowa caucuses.

Okay, what’s an invisible caucus? And what’s an invisible primary?

Let me answer the second question first. As Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor explained back on February 26, 2007, “what’s come to be known as the ‘invisible primary’ (is) the early jockeying for money, top campaign staff, and high-profile endorsements that winnow the presidential field long before any caucuses or primaries are held.”

And, as I explained in the first edition of my book, YouTube and Video Marketing, which was published on August 17, 2009, the early jockeying for opinion leaders in YouTube’s news and politics category is an “invisible caucus.” And, since those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, it is still worth asking, “Did winning the invisible caucus help a former community organizer’s presidential campaign take off?”

Well, my rhetorical question was answered back on November 14, 2008, when Jose Antonio Vargas wrote an online column for the Washington Post entitled, “The YouTube Presidency.” In it, he quoted Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube.

Grove said, “The Obama team has written the playbook on how to use YouTube for political campaigns. Not only have they achieved impressive mass – uploading over 1,800 videos that have been viewed over 110 million times total – but they’ve also used video to cultivate a sense of community amongst supporters.”

And that’s exactly what the Sanders campaign is doing today.

How video marketing works

Since uploading their first YouTube video entitled, “I’m running for President,” on Feb. 19, 2019, the Sanders campaign has uploaded at total of 538 videos to their YouTube channel. They have received 17.4 million views and 1.7 million engagements.

But, it’s significant that one of the videos with the most views and engagements is entitled, “Thank You from Bernie and Jane.” It was uploaded in Las Vegas on Oct. 4, 2019, when Sanders got out of the hospital following a heart attack. In it, he says, “I’m feeling so much better. Thank you for all of the love and warm wishes that you sent me. See you soon on the campaign trail.”

Now, some political pundits wondered at the time if the Sanders campaign could recover from voter concerns over the candidate’s health as well as his obvious need to dial back his campaign schedule. But, within weeks, his support in national polls went up and he went on to raise $34.5 million for his White House bid in Q4 2019. That brought the total he had collected in his second bid for the presidency to $96 million, which he had received more than 5 million individual contributions.

What helped Sanders to win the invisible primary despite having a heart attack? I would argue that it was videos like “We Will Make History,” which was uploaded on Oct. 10, 2019. In it, Sanders thanks supporters for their well wishes and rededicates himself to the struggle to the struggle to guarantee health care for all.

Another YouTube video that shows how Sanders won the invisible caucus is entitled, “Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Endorses Bernie Sanders for President,” which was uploaded on Oct. 19, 2019. In it, AOC says, “This is not about me. This is not about Senator Sanders. This is about what we have to accomplish together. This is not about saying everyone should have health care with some asterisks or that your student loan debt should be forgiven under certain conditions. This is about unconditional, universal, guaranteed advanced standard of living in the United States of America. No ifs, no ands, no buts, no matter who you are, where you come from, what you’re born into. We should have a society that guarantees 21st century economic human rights, that introduces democracy to the workplace where people feel protected and safe at work, where they feel honored and dignified at home. And that every person has actual power in the United States of America.”

By comparison, the Pete Buttigieg campaign uploaded its first YouTube video on Mar. 11, 2019. It was entitled, “CNN Town Hall: Washington should start to look more like our best run cities and towns.”

Since then, the Buttigieg campaign has uploaded a total of 187 videos, which have received 3.2 million views and 47,800 engagements.

The Elizabeth Warren campaign uploaded its first video to YouTube on Dec. 31, 2018. It was entitled, “Elizabeth Warren Launches Exploratory Committee for President.”

Since then, the Warren campaign has uploaded a total of 178 videos, which have received 2.4 million views and 32,100 engagements.

The Joe Biden campaign uploaded its first YouTube video on April 25, 2019. It was entitled, “Joe Biden For President: America Is An Idea.”

Since then, the Biden campaign has uploaded a total of 117 videos, which have received 2.3 million views and 54,400 engagements.

In other words, the Sanders campaign has uploaded more YouTube videos (532) than the campaigns for Buttigieg, Warren, and Biden have put together (482). And Bernie’s videos have received more views (16.8 million) than the videos for Pete, Elizabeth, and Joe have combined (7.9 million). And the videos for Sanders have more engagements (1.7 million) than the videos for the other three candidates have combined (1.3 million).

Now, I suspect that some political observers are asking themselves, “What about Facebook?”

Well, YouTube says you pay for a “view” when a viewer watches 30 seconds of your video – or the duration if it’s shorter than 30 seconds – or engages with your video, whichever comes first. But, Facebook says you pay for a “view when a video is displayed in a user’s news feed for 3 seconds or more, even if the person doesn’t actually click on the video to watch with the sound turned on. So, comparing YouTube and Facebook “views” is like comparing apples and kumquats.

Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign has uploaded 1,413 videos to Facebook, which have received 231 million “views” and 13.7 million engagements. By comparison, the Warren campaign has uploaded 876 videos to Facebook, which have received 72.5 million “views” and 4.4 million engagements. The Biden campaign has uploaded 388 videos to Facebook, which have received 18.5 million “views” and 1.9 million engagements. And the Buttigieg campaign has uploaded 329 videos to Facebook, which have received 21.1 million “views” and 1.5 million engagements.

So, despite the different definitions of a view, you see very similar results: The Sanders campaign has uploaded almost as many videos to Facebook (1,413) as the campaigns for Warren, Biden, and Buttigieg put together (1,593). But, Bernie’s Facebook videos have received more than twice as many “views” (231 million) as Elizabeth, Joe, and Pete’s combined (112.1 million). And the Sanders campaign’s Facebook videos have 43% more engagements (13.7 million) as his three closest competitors put together (7.8 million).

Why video marketing is so important

So, I think Bernie has won the invisible caucus. What about the invisible primary?

According to a story by Brianne Pfannenstiel entitled, “Bernie Sanders leads the Iowa Poll for the first time, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses,” which was published Jan. 10, 2019, in the Des Moines Register, 20% of likely Democratic caucusgoers named Sanders as their first choice for president. Warren got 17%; Buttigieg 16%; and Biden 15%.

“There’s no denying that this is a good poll for Bernie Sanders. He leads, but it’s not an uncontested lead,” said pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. “He’s got a firmer grip on his supporters than the rest of his compatriots.”

Nevertheless, a lot can happen between now and when the Iowa Democratic caucuses take place on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. For example, Warren could get a last-minute bump from her performance in the final televised debate on CNN. An article by Nate Silver entitled, “Election Update: Why Warren Needs To Play To Win — And That Includes Beating Sanders,” which was published this morning by FiveThirtyEight, reported, “And there’s even some initial evidence that her strategy is working! Voters in our post-debate poll with Ipsos gave Warren the highest grade of any candidate for her debate performance — which mostly featured a positive, policy-oriented message along with a couple of chilly moments between her and Sanders. Meanwhile perceptions of Warren’s electability improved among voters in the poll after the debate, while Sanders’s favorability ratings worsened.” 

And a story by Kim Norvell and Barbara Rodriguez entitled, “Democratic presidential debate: Warren-Sanders spat on national stage, foreign policy looms large among all,” which was published by the Des Moines Register after the debate, said, “U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren worked to turn a brewing spat with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders into an empowering moment at the Democratic presidential debate in Iowa on Tuesday, as moderators brought the two most liberal candidates’ dispute to the national stage.”

“The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they have been in are the women — Amy and me,” the senator from Massachusetts said of herself and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. On the CNN/Des Moines Register debate stage, Warren added that she’s also the only candidate who has beat a Republican incumbent in 30 years.

In a video entitled, “Elizabeth Warren fires back at Bernie Sanders’ denial about women candidates,” CNN’s YouTube channel also chose that exchange as one of the highlights from the debate. (Yes, even CNN has a YouTube channel.)

A day later, CNN uploaded another video to its YouTube channel entitled, “Audio reveals tense confrontation between Warren and Sanders.” In an exchange caught on CNN’s microphones after the Democratic presidential primary debate, Elizabeth Warren accused Bernie Sanders of calling her liar.

With a YouTube channel of its own, the Sanders campaign has been able to upload several videos in the 36 hours since the debate ended. One is entitled, “Bernie vs. Biden on the War in Iraq.”

And another video uploaded just 12 hours ago is entitled, “Bernie vs. Biden on Health Care.”

So, having their own YouTube channel enables the Sanders campaign to focus on the opponent that they think has the biggest chance of beating Bernie in the Iowa caucuses – and it’s pretty clear that the Sanders campaign thinks it’s Biden, not Warren.

And according to a Monmouth University Poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers, which was published on Jan. 13, 2019, four candidates are currently vying for the top spot in next month’s Iowa caucuses – Biden (24%), Sanders (18%), Buttigieg (17%), and Warren (15%). So, the Sanders campaign may be focused on the right opponent.

What about local television? Well, according to a story by Shane Goldmacher and Sydney Ember entitled, “Elizabeth Warren Confronts the Skeptics Who Fear Her Plans Go Too Far,” which was published this morning in The New York Times, “Through Monday, (Ms. Warren’s) $3.7 million in Iowa television ads is only a fraction of her opponents’ advertising: less than half what Mr. Buttigieg has spent (nearly $8 million), and barely more than half of Mr. Sanders’s spending ($7.2 million), according to data from Advertising Analytics.”

Or, the outcome may turn on who has the most robust field operation in Iowa. This morning’s story in The New York Times adds, “Ms. Warren’s supporters believe her early investment in an Iowa field organization will help her at the finish. A frenetic series of events last weekend offered a sneak peek at the organizing muscle of her campaign, as Ms. Warren campaigned with one of her national co-chairs, Representative Katie Porter of California, in one city and a former presidential rival, Julián Castro, in another. Her husband cut the ribbon on a new office in Ankeny on Monday, and a group of black women who have endorsed her led a weekend canvass kickoff in Des Moines.”

A good field organization can also play a crucial role inside the caucuses to persuade Iowans to support a candidate on the first or second ballot at each of Iowa’s 1,681 precincts. For example, Selzer’s latest poll found the percentage of those who say their mind is made up about which candidate to support on caucus night has risen to 40%, but 45% say they could still be persuaded to support someone else, and another 13% who have not picked a favorite candidate yet.

So, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

However, political observers shouldn’t be surprised if Sanders goes on to win the Iowa caucuses 18 days from now after winning the invisible caucus and the invisible primary. If he does, then his campaign team will have successfully used an updated version of the playbook that the Obama team wrote back in 2008. They will have used video marketing – on both YouTube and Facebook – to cultivate a sense of community amongst Bernie’s supporters. And that’s an important lesson that other Democratic candidates running for other offices around the country should learn before November.

If you want to learn more, you should read the post on this blog entitled, “A crash course in programmatic advertising for Liberal Democrats” even though it is about the Lib Dems in the U.K. And even the campaign managers of American candidates should also read “Is digital advertising effective for political campaigns in Canada?” Plus, you may want to read the post entitled, “YouTube’s Organic Visibility Tops Wikipedia in Google SERPs,” which was published yesterday on Search Engine Journal, as well as the post entitled, “Why You Must Unlearn What You Know About the YouTube Algorithm,” which was published by Search Engine Journal in March 2019.

But, whatever you do, don’t read my book, YouTube and Video Marketing. Why? Because it needs to be thoroughly updated. In addition, the Obama case study in the book was written before YouTube launched its TrueView ad format in December 2010, or dramatically updated its algorithm in October 2012. So, campaign managers can learn a lot from history, but they also need to be up-to-date on current best practices in order to be successful. If you’re interested, you can also contact us about putting together a video marketing training course for your campaign team. We’ve taught on-site and online courses for a wide variety of organizations. We can tailor something for your political campaign, as well.

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