How a Rally on Reddit Helped Generate Huge Turnout for Sanders in Wisconsin

Bernie Sanders and His Significant Presence on Reddit Is Bolstering Grassroots Momentum

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On Wednesday, Kenneth Pennington wasn't sitting in front of his computer as he normally would on a weekday afternoon. Instead, the digital director for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign was in Madison, Wisconsin, where later that night thousands of supporters were expected to show up at a rally for the underdog candidate.

By the afternoon, more than 9,000 people had RSVP'd to attend the event.

"I'm usually the guy behind the computer," Mr. Pennington said over the phone, noting he hoped sound system testing wouldn't disrupt the call.

It's not often that a digital director, especially one working on a scrappy campaign with far less money than its biggest competitor, travels to a campaign rally, but that's just one of many things that are unique about the billionaire-eschewing Mr. Sanders' approach thus far.

While other candidates on both sides are focused on digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google, the Sanders camp considers another to be as integral, if not more integral, to its grassroots momentum: Reddit.

"We've used Reddit pretty extensively to advertise this event," said Mr. Pennington, who handled digital work for the Senator as part of his staff before he launched his presidential run. "We're hoping it will be a barn burner."

It was. The rally drew a capacity crowd of 10,000 to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wisc., according to the campaign and an Associated Press report. That made it the largest event of the 2016 election season -- not counting Ted Cruz's campaign kick-off at Liberty University, which was mandatory for students.

Promotions for the event promised the candidate would focus on wealth inequality, climate change and affordable college education. Reddit readers used a Wisconsin-specific pro-Sanders page to discuss getting rides to the event and whether to use Periscope to stream a live Twitter video feed of the rally. One supporter linked to a guide for live-tweeting the event he created on his own website. He hoped #FeelTheBern would go viral.

Reddit is a community-focused site where article links and topic posts rise to prominence the more they're shared or discussed. It tends to attract younger and sometimes more vocal users, making it fertile ground for grassroots organizing. The site allows users to create "subreddits" and state-specific pages.

And with more than 54,000 subscribers to the SandersForPresident subreddit – a measure akin to likes or followers on Facebook and Twitter -- the Sanders camp has harvested much more support than any other 2016 candidate from Reddit's social soil. Subreddits dedicated to more popular candidates have far fewer subscribers; Hillary Clinton has around 300 and Jeb Bush has just 70, while Rand Paul has around 3,600 subscribers to an account not directly affiliated with his presidential campaign.

The site was put on the political map when President Barack Obama did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) during his 2012 re-election campaign. Last year now-Democratic presidential contender Martin O'Malley took to the AMA stage; however, Reddit remains mostly under the radar as a political campaign forum.

The SandersForPresident subreddit is not a product of the campaign. Rather, a supporter created the account before the Vermont Senator, an Independent with a socialist streak, declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination.

"We started as a campaign in an official way interacting with the people in that community," said Mr. Pennington. "We have no control over the community. ... We interact with them to make it fun to be a part of this movement."

He and other staffers in the Sanders campaign, along with the campaign's primary digital agency Revolution Messaging, do the Reddit work.

Interaction can be as simple as posting a flyer for supporters to print and distribute in their locales, something Mr. Pennington did on the Wisconsin4Sanders subreddit as soon as he knew the Madison rally date was confirmed. He agreed that what's happening on Reddit could be compared to the Meetup.com movement which helped boost Howard Dean's early 2004 campaign rise, and house parties that helped propel Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign.

Asking Reddit supporters to post flyers around town may not seem like a standard task for the digital director of a presidential campaign, yet, said Mr. Pennington, asking for help from a community like the one on Reddit "is part of the unique culture of the Bernie Sanders campaign which is a reflection of who he is."

Well-attended rallies and active online supporters are one thing, but how does that translate to money in a race in which Mr. Sanders must compete with Hillary Clinton's coffers, which collected $45 million during the first quarter of her campaign? The Sanders camp is expected to report donations amounting to around $8 million this quarter.

The Reddit momentum isn't about the money, said Mr. Pennington. Donations from people coming through the Reddit site totaled $24,798 from 944 donors on July 1, an average of around $26. "We're certainly not saying don't donate to us, but the primary reason we're on Reddit is to inspire people about issues…and move people into grassroots action," he said.