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The End of the Telegenic President

Establishment candidates will from now on have to answer to the long, unforgiving memory of the Internet.
Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters after winning the Vermont primary on Super Tuesday. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters after winning the Vermont primary on Super Tuesday. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Young people gathered at a bar in Brooklyn on Tuesday night to engage in something they say they do just a few times each year: Watch cable news.

Bushwick Berners and Babes for Bernie, two volunteer-run groups supporting Senator Bernie Sanders' bid for the presidency, held the Super Tuesday watch party at Eastlands, the same Brooklyn bar where they'd cheered their candidate's near-win in the Iowa caucuses last month. Other than trips home to their parents' houses, Tuesday was the only dose of cable television's razzle dazzle many of these Millennials will get for months. Most don't even have a TV, opting instead to get their news online.

Even though their candidate lost seven of 11 states to rival Hillary Clinton, who opened up a wide lead in the delegate count, these Brooklyn "Berners" remained enthusiastic and hopeful that Sanders might somehow secure the nomination. (Trump, meanwhile, completed a near-sweep on the Republican side of the Super Tuesday primaries, using a colloquial style and rhetoric unthinkable for any GOP front-runner just a year ago.)

Regardless of its outcome, the 2016 election appears to be a watershed in how candidates connect and communicate with their voters, particularly in the Democratic party. Sanders supporters—and there are many in Brooklyn—prefer their news online for the same reasons they don't support Clinton: The old establishment networks are too close to big business to escape the stain of corruption. One Bernie supporter at the bar explains to me how Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, has given money to Clinton in the past, and as such could not be trusted.

Politicians are entering a new era, where they will have to answer to the long memory of the Internet for what they've said in the past. And instead of politicians looking and sounding the part on cable TV, they'll have to learn to navigate the Internet, and to ride the tides of support online.

"I read the Guardian, the Intercept, and I watch Democracy Now," says another bar patron, David Maddy, 31, an economics student who supports Sanders. "Making news online is much cheaper than making cable news, so there's less overhead. And that means there's likely less involvement from big business interests. Anybody can start a blog."

Sanders supporters prefer their news online for the same reasons they don't support Clinton: The old establishment networks are too close to big business to escape the stain of corruption.

Maddy admits there's lots of false information on the Internet, but says he avoids stumbling across misinformation by comparing sources (and using common sense). On cable television, he notes, viewers can't check the facts or interact with the content, nor can they communicate with fellow audience members. On the Internet, that's, of course, everywhere.

Cable television also doesn't have the Internet's memory, instead barreling from segment to commercial break to shouting match. An Internet user is able to research a candidate's past, and doing so doesn't always put Clinton, with a long and storied political career, in a favorable light. Like Sanders, her political career has spanned massive shifts in American culture and economics. However, unlike the Vermont Senator, the last 30 years of her life have been lived on a grand political stage, and she now might have to answer for countless statements and votes she'd made in the past.

"At first, I was excited for Clinton, but then I started learning about her past and her terrible platforms," says 30-year-old Sherrie Gonzalez, who helped throw the Eastlands event.

In a subsequent exchange of online direct messages, Gonzalez adds: "I thought that she would have been against the death penalty but she's not. I didn't know about her history with mass incarceration."

Online video content, on YouTube and elsewhere, that is critical of Clinton often calls out her inconsistencies by using decades-old television footage (often apolitical C-SPAN) to illustrate how her positions on issues have changed over time. One video, "Hillary Clinton Lying for 13 Minutes Straight," has generated 1.7 million views. Another shows Hillary describing urban youth involved in violence as "superpredators," broken children without conscience, whom the government needs to bring "to heel." That clip dates back to 1996.

Last week, a black protester confronted Clinton about her "superpredator" line at a fundraiser in South Carolina. Soon after, Clinton apologized for the 1996 remark, saying she shouldn't have used it then, and wouldn't again today.

But the issue might continue to dog her. Another woman asked Clinton about her decades-old comment in Minneapolis on Tuesday, the Hill reported. In an ironic example of history coming full circle, both exchanges were caught on cell phone video.

None of this would've happened had the Internet not been there to promulgate the clip.

Conversely, memes supporting Sanders—some the product of a fan-made 350,000 strong Facebook group called Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash—highlight his consistent positions on gay marriage and income inequality, using the same style of vintage C-SPAN tape. The largest of a handful of Hillary Clinton Dank Meme Stash pages on Facebook has only 500 members and often actually features pro-Sanders content. Producing content for free for Sanders, members of the Dank Meme Stash revel in Internet language and inside jokes that don't appear on an equivalent Clinton page. The Dank Meme Stash includes styles of writing and wit unique to the Internet; Clinton's fan page doesn't.

This isn't just an anecdotal trend: A recent FiveThirtyEight study looked at the geography of Facebook likes for each candidate, and found Sanders besting Clinton by wide margins in every state, including the ones she won on Super Tuesday.

What's happened in 2016 mirrors the first televised debates of 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy christened the era of the telegenic president while sweaty Richard M. Nixon became a casualty of the transition from radio to moving image. Whether he wins or not, Sanders has shown he's better than Clinton at mustering enthusiasm on the Internet, as the data from FiveThirtyEight shows.

The Sanders supporters at the bar agree that the Internet allows audiences to think more critically than cable news does. "Getting information online is like reading the Bible for yourself, and cable news is like having a priest interpret it for you," says 36-year-old Sanders activist Steve Panovich.*

Cable television gives viewers a vivid representation of the present and a scintillating glimpse at the future, but the past is far harder to retrieve. There's no way to Google your way through Fox News' archives. Among voters, this inaccessibility creates an amnesia that politicians won't be able to rely on much longer.

While cable news audiences have started to decline, consumption of digital news, especially over mobile devices, continues to grow, according to a 2015 Pew study. Although the cable news industry said it posted good numbers in 2015—thanks in large part to developing stories related to Donald Trump and various acts of terrorism, the New York Times reports—the average age of a cable news consumer is about 65, according to ratings agency Nielsen.

Clinton started her political career as cable television was in its prime, and she knows how to play to the camera as a politician. But that skill might be becoming less relevant, as the Internet and social media close the distance between voters and information about candidates.

And despite recent results, this year has still been a struggle for Clinton and other establishment politicians. Take Super Tuesday as an example: Amid a Trump sweep, establishment favorite Marco Rubio only won in Minnesota, a state his party likely won't carry in November. Clinton, for her part, is competing against an avowed socialist who entered the race last spring polling in the single digits. Even though Sanders appears likely to lose the nomination, he's still the first politician many young people will ever vote for. In future elections, they're now likely to seek more of the same, with the words "99 percent" and "democratic socialism" firmly planted in their rhetorical arsenal.

The chattering classes can't seem to figure out why this is happening. One potential reason: Communications technology is far different than it was in 2008, which pollsters still use to compare voter attitudes.

The Internet has made federal decency rules on television seem ridiculously quaint. Trump has taken advantage of this. He can write whatever he wants on his Twitter account, and no one will be there to cut to a commercial or fine him for breaking Federal Communications Commission rules. This is the year the YouTube comments section came alive and ran for president.

Establishment candidates like Clinton will continue to have to answer for their past political speech, available online, 24/7, in all its grainy glory. And they'll have to do so to an electorate left far angrier than any pundit could have guessed, scarred by the indignities of a recession and a slow job market.

At Eastlands, cable news played projected against a wall and on a television set above the bar, but few paid much attention to it, unless it was to cheer Sanders' victories or to boo Clinton. If they were going to have to stare at a screen, most chose their cell phones.


*Update — March 2, 2016: This article originally misspelled Steve Panovich's name.