Feb 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Older candidates take the lead on social media

Illustration of older hands holding a phone with a picture of a podium

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden — all close to 80 — are pushing the boundaries on social media, while their younger Democratic presidential rivals are comparatively staying out of the fray.

The big picture: President Trump's unexpected rise to political power has shown Democrats and world leaders the power of harnessing popular internet culture to get elected.

Driving the news: Bloomberg's strategies of hiring meme creators and paying people to promote his brand are just a few examples of the way the 78-year-old former New York City mayor is pushing the boundaries on social media.

  • In recent weeks, Bloomberg has sharpened his attacks on Twitter, mimicking Trump's brash, straightforward language.
  • "Impeached president says what?" he responded to one Trump Twitter insult last week.
  • He's even given Trump a new nickname that he tweets repeatedly — "#carnivalbarkingclown."

Trump has long nicknamed his rivals in an effort to brand them as old, weak and crazy: "Sleepy Joe," "Crazy Bernie" and "Mini Mike."

Like Trump, Bloomberg is taking advantage of the loose regulations and mass reach of internet platforms in order to rally supporters.

  • Earlier this week, Bloomberg posted a heavily edited video from his first debate appearance that made it look as though his rivals were stumped by his question about their business experience.
  • The Washington Post gave the video "Four Pinocchios," suggesting that the video was intentionally false.
  • A Twitter official told the Washington Post that the video would likely be labeled as false when its new manipulated media policy goes into effect next month.

Yes, but: When it comes to memes, Sanders, also 78, is giving Bloomberg a run for his money.

  • "Pro-Sanders memes are more pervasive and popular than memes for any other Democratic candidate, and overall Sanders is second only to Trump in terms of meme power and social media influence," according to a new report from Business Insider.
  • The report noted that a video of Sanders saying "I am once again asking for your financial support" became a viral meme — using him saying "I am once again asking for" followed by pretty much anything else.

Even Biden, 77, who's been criticized for a lack of energy this election cycle, has amped up an edgier online presence in recent weeks as Bloomberg began cutting into his support and Sanders began pulling away.

  • After Bloomberg’s participation in the Nevada debate was announced, Biden released a video of what appears to be direct messages being sent from Bloomberg's campaign, mocking his experience.

The big picture: These campaign tactics are part of a wider trend of established people, particularly men, adopting Trump-like jabs, nicknames and viral internet tactics to put down critics or rally their supporters online.

Be smart: By comparison, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have kept relatively low-key profiles online. For Buttigieg, the 38-year-old veteran who has faced questions about his limited governance experience, keeping a highly professional profile makes more sense.

  • Elizabeth Warren, 70, isn’t as aggressive in dunking her opponents online, but she's been bringing the heat via zingers on the debate stage that tend to garner lots of attention online later — like her attacks on Bloomberg at last week's debate. 
  • Earlier this campaign cycle, Andrew Yang made his name by leveraging an army of online supporters, dubbed "The Yang Gang," to help bolster his position and get him on the debate stage.
  • But Yang's internet fandom also took a toll on the candidate, when conservative internet memers began throwing their support behind Yang.

Go deeper: How memes shaped the 2010s

Go deeper