Could YouTube Help Bernie Sanders — and Hurt Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Clinton may be the Democratic establishment's favorite, but on the Internet, social media users are feelin' the Bern.

In addition to the private email server that never seems to go away, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s primary chances are hindered by something that is seldom discussed in the mainstream media: her stance on the issues. Even if Clinton manages to overcome the scandals that raise questions about her professionalism, she’ll still be pressured to defend her problematic voting record in the Senate and the many political positions she’s taken over the years that counter the semi-progressive platform on which she’s currently running.

The latest Iowa poll confirms this. Clinton’s lead in the significant primary state has dropped below 50 percent for the first time, while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has surged a staggering 25 points since the poll was conducted last January. The poll shows that Sanders draws the majority of young voters, independent voters, and new voters, and that 96 percent of voters support Sanders’ ideas. In other words, a vote for Sanders isn’t necessarily a protest vote against Clinton.

In addition, the poll proves that the majority of Democratic voters don’t care about Clinton’s private email server, which suggests that her problems with the electorate have to do with her policy positions and past record as First Lady, Senator of New York, and Secretary of State.

Most significantly for Sanders, Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t make as big of an impact as establishment Democrats looking for a scandal-free alternative to Clinton would like. With Biden in the race, Clinton leads by seven points. Without Biden, Clinton leads by eight points. This is bad news for Clinton, Biden, and the Democratic establishment.

The anti-establishment sentiment in this poll is difficult to ignore. When we take into account that 19 percent of Iowa Democrats still don’t know who Sanders is, compared to the four percent who are unfamiliar with Clinton, it appears as if Clinton’s decline is far from over, and Sanders’ surge has only just begun. (“Iowa Poll: Clinton Leads, But Sanders draws near“, by Jennifer Jacobs, The Des Moines Register, 29 August 2015)

The “expert” pundits appear on corporate-owned media channels to explain the surge. Some attribute Sanders’ rise to Clinton’s scandals, others to the passion of the progressive base of the Democratic Party. A few have tried to compare Sanders to Republican candidate Donald Trump with claims that they both tap into the anger and frustration of the American people. Regardless of the different reasons, the discussion always begins and ends with the same clarification: “Sanders won’t win the nomination.” The clip below is just one frustrating example.

Even when Sanders draws the biggest crowds of any candidate, and more than President Obama had at this point in 2007, pundits dismiss the crowds as young hipsters and old hippies who don’t represent the majority of Americans. (“100,000 people have attended Bernie Sanders events this month. That doesn’t mean much.“, by Phillip Bump, The Washington Post, 12 August 2015) Even when he topples Clinton in a crucial New Hampshire poll, pundits undermine the poll’s significance and argue that it’s an anomaly. (“HUFFPOLSTER: Is Bernie Sanders Really Leading in New Hampshire?“, The Huffington Post, 14 August 2015)

When Newt Gingrich of all people warns that Sanders is a realistic threat to Clinton and the GOP, then the pundits ought to do the same. Their unwillingness to take Sanders seriously says less about Sanders and more about their fears and insecurities. Social media has democratized communication, and they have lost control of the discourse. The establishment is on the verge of collapse, and they are trying desperately hard to assert their authority in a political climate that continues to prove them wrong. Trump’s sustained success still surprises them, and if they start to take Sanders seriously, then they’d have to admit that they’ve been wrong about him, as well. This would be a crucial blow to their credibility.

The pundits’ old-fashioned methods of analysis fail to incorporate Internet activity. Pundits, most of whom are middle-aged, obsessed with polls and fundraising, have nothing to say about social media support. Perhaps it’s because 24/7 passion is difficult to quantify. However, social media support will play a pivotal role in Sanders’ grassroots campaign, and no social media tool will be more significant than YouTube. (Brent Budowsky of The Observer has an excellent article about the power of social media in politics, “The Great Bernie Sanders Birthday Moneybomb is Coming“, 14 August 2015)

Recently, I logged onto YouTube to get a sense of how it can shape political discourse. I was surprised by what I found, and although there’s no indication that YouTube activity can influence the entire electorate, it overwhelmingly helps Sanders and hurts Clinton.

There are four important features of a YouTube video that have the potential to influence voters. The first is the video itself, the second is the thumbs up/thumbs down favorability rating of the video, the third is the comments section, and the fourth is the thumbs up/thumbs down favorability rating of the user comments. Combined, these four features give voters a general sense of the consensus surrounding the candidates. I compared videos of Sanders with Clinton and found that in all four areas Sanders is by far the more favorable candidate.

Sanders and Clinton have a plethora of videos on YouTube from the past and present. The first video of Sanders that shows up is “Bernie Sanders: The Vox Conversation”. It has received over 320,000 views since it was uploaded on 28 July, and it has an extremely high thumbs up/thumbs down favorability rating. Over 10,000 users approve of the video, and only 350 disapprove.

The most popular comment under the video is by the user Congressman Weezy, who writes that “every answer was honest and passionate”. This comment was favorited over 1,500 times. Another comment by user gio giii says, “first 10 minutes & I already love this man!” which was favorited over 1,100 times. Cudder Budder chimes in, “If you like Bernie please plan on voting in the primaries. That’s where the real battle is going to be. I know Bernie could mop the floor with whoever the GOP nominee is.”

By contrast, the first video of Clinton that comes up is “Hillary Clinton Major Economic Speech [Full] –2016 Presidential Campaign”. Uploaded on 13 July, the video has received a little over 60,000 views, and has an extremely low thumbs up/thumbs down favorability rating. Just 500 people approve compared to the 1,000 plus who disapprove.

The top comments aren’t sympathetic toward Clinton. In a sarcastic tone, user Marcellis Robison writes, “Hey, Wall St. I’m going to give a speech, and I need to say some unpleasant things about you. You certainly don’t like Bernie, do you? Anyway, just ignore it, and I’ll return the favor once I’m in the White House. — Yours Truly, Hillary.” This comment refers to Clinton’s close connections to Wall Street, and was favorited over 100 times. User GUAVcis06 claims that Clinton is “faker than plastic”, and StarWarrior 008 agrees that Clinton “sounds like a robot”. Both of these comments were favorited over 100 times.

It’s difficult to determine if the users who rate and comment on the videos are registered American voters, but the favorability gap between Sanders and Clinton is shockingly wide. YouTube users consistently approve of nearly every Sanders video, and YouTube users consistently disapprove of nearly every Clinton video.

YouTube gives voters access to crucial information about the candidates, including past positions they’ve taken on important issues. YouTube is arguably the most trusted news source because voters can hear from the candidates in their own words without any further analysis by a biased pundit. Misinformed or misleading comments by YouTube users are more likely to be called out by the YouTube community, whereas misinformed or misleading comments by pundits on cable television are practically the norm.

When I typed in “Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders” in the search bar, the first video that shows up is “Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders on Whether to Invade Iraq – 2002”. Uploaded by the Separation of Corporation and State, the video juxtaposes the speeches that Sanders and Clinton gave on the Senate floor before the Iraq invasion. Sanders voted against the invasion and predicted the destabilization that it would cause, whereas Clinton voted for the invasion. In the comments, user mindofown writes, “Bernie Sanders proves he is a very wise man.” FreedomLiberty21 agrees, “The hardest decision you ever had to make, turned out to be the strategic geopolitical catastrophe of the 21st century, Hillary. She is unfit to be president.”

These videos will challenge Clinton as she struggles to run on a platform that doesn’t match what she supported in the past. As the user Charles Camisa puts it in one of the comments, “So Hillary flipped on gay marriage, the Cuba embargo, and the Iraq War? Jesus… what else? People, you can’t trust this woman. She is being bought out.” Voters can use YouTube to verify Camisa’s comment. For instance, I type “Hillary Clinton gay marriage” in the search bar, and the first video that emerges is one from 2004 in which Clinton opposed same-sex marriage rights.

“Hillary Clinton on Gay Marriage 2004” has over 500,000 views. The top comment claims, “Bernie Sanders has been supporting gay rights since 1973, so vote for honesty and consistency.” I type in “Bernie Sanders gay rights 1970s” in the search bar to see what shows up.

A video uploaded by the Humanist Report called “A Look at Bernie Sanders’ Civil Rights Activism: 1960s — Present” has received over 16,000 views and has been approved by over 400 users. The video highlights a history of Sanders’ civil rights and gay rights activism. The top comment by Brian Anderson reads, “Bernie was marching with MLK when Hillary was campaigning for Goldwater. That alone should tell you everything you know.”

This is a cycle, and by the end of it, voters walk away with a positive view of Sanders and a negative view of Clinton. It’s not just the user comments and favorability ratings, either. It’s also the content of the videos.

Older videos from the ‘90s and ‘00s match what Sanders is running on today, whereas older videos from the ‘90s and ‘00s don’t match what Clinton is running on today. For example, YouTube confirms that Sanders has taken consistent positions on the important issues throughout his career. There aren’t any “Bernie Sanders flip-flop” videos, nor are there any videos that offer evidence of dishonesty. The same can’t be said about Clinton. Further, the majority of Clinton’s videos are overrun with comments about why viewers think that Sanders is the better choice for president.

Historical YouTube videos matter because they make it harder for politicians to lie to American voters, especially cynical millennials who came of age under George W. Bush. Rather than take candidates at their word, voters can look up what their past positions were to see if they contradict themselves today. This is why Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show was so effective. His research team would find videos to juxtapose the past and the present to show the hypocrisy of Washington. Now that The Daily Show has come to an end, curious voters will be more inclined to use YouTube and do the research themselves.

This may harm certain presidential candidates who have a history of saying one thing and doing another, but it’s invaluable for the American voter. Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has grown in popularity, and its database of videos has significantly expanded. Today, voters have more instant access to a candidate than at any time in American history, including the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. For example, the aforementioned Sanders vs. Clinton Iraq War video was recently uploaded on 18 July 2015 in preparation for the primary.

YouTube allows voters to access information that’s not always available from mainstream sources. Voters don’t always have to rely on what the mainstream media reports and doesn’t report, although it should be realized that a great deal of the uploaded videos are from mainstream media, and are often edited beyond the speaker’s control. Still, this medium helps to level the playing field for candidates. Rather than listen to what a pundit has to say about Sanders’ so-called “problem” with minorities, for example, voters can watch this video to see what some minority voters have to say about Sanders.

This online participation extends beyond YouTube. For example, Sanders has an active following on Reddit of over 90,000 users, thousands more than any other candidate. Clinton’s Reddit page, by contrast, has 500 subscribers. (“Reddit boosts momentum for Sanders’ campaign“, by Nicole Gaudiano, USA Today, 24 July 2015)

In addition, Sanders fans are all over Facebook. He has over three million followers when you combine his two pages, which is more than Clinton’s 1.2 million followers. Sanders’ Facebook supporters are currently organizing an event which would have over 100,000 people travel to Washington D.C. for an “Enough is Enough!” rally. Over 110,000 thousand people have RSVP’d, and according to one of the event’s organizers, Sanders’ campaign has expressed enthusiasm about the event.

The “Occupy Democrats” Facebook page, which has over 900,000 likes, has been posting more frequently about Sanders since he entered the race, and any positive posts about Clinton are confronted by users in the comments section. For example, one post on 12 August in support of Clinton’s “debt-free” college plan didn’t receive a warm welcome, especially compared to Sanders’ “tuition-free” plan. (How either of these plans would actually be implemented is another matter which voters will need to pay attention to — it’s easy to applaud the sound bites we want to hear.) Nancy Sears’ comment, which has over 700 likes, simply states, “Bernie Sanders has been saying this for years.”

As the discourse on YouTube and other social media demonstrates, Clinton’s decision to change her positions on the issues has damaged her campaign. It’s one thing for politicians to “evolve” over time on a specific issue like gun control or abortion, but that’s not what’s happened here. An ideological shift has taken place, and it goes beyond any single issue. The center-right Clinton who associated with Wall Street and Corporate America now claims to be the left-of-center progressive who will fight for the working-class. Clinton supporters act as if Sanders, a life-long progressive, isn’t even in the race, and that could be their biggest mistake.

YouTube largely serves as the people’s fact-checker, these days. Ideally, unedited YouTube videos of candidates discussing the issues, combined with informed opinion and historical awareness, could make for smarter voters in 2016. All we can do now is watch.