Faced with the most dramatic challenge of his career amid a global pandemic, Ed Markey rallied progressives online to take action.
Written by Paul Bologna (Creative Director and Digital Communications Director) and Nicole Bardasz (Deputy Digital Communications Director) of the Ed Markey for U.S. Senate campaign
In the fall of 2019, incumbent U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts was polling 17 points behind his challenger, Congressman Joe Kennedy III. No Kennedy had ever lost a race in Massachusetts. A year later, Markey trounced Kennedy by 11 points in an election that saw the highest voter turnout in the state’s history.
Ed Markey was 26 years old when he was first elected as a state legislator. He would spend his career advocating for progressive and liberal causes, led on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Alzheimer’s research, and internet access, took good votes and some bad votes, delivered for his constituents, and always championed climate action.
Markey‘s campaign manager, John Walsh, set out to create a digitally-infused campaign, with a digital team that would integrate with and empower each department while driving campaign communications. An early investment in production equipment and talented young staff, mainly women who had just graduated college, gave the team an edge.
For political movements to be effective, they need to take and occupy space. They need that space for organizing, to be visible to the public and the media, and to establish credibility. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the only space is virtual space. Markey was prepared to adapt his operation into an entirely digital campaign and his team was ready to organize an online community.
The digital team published hundreds of short, captioned videos, produced more than 100 livestreams, and delivered a bold and inclusive messaging strategy to get people to take action. The mantra was “righteous anger and radical hope” and it guided Markey’s messaging around the Green New Deal (which he co-authored with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), Medicare for All, COVID-19 relief, and social, racial, and economic justice. Markey spoke in fighting words, he asked people to join our movement, and he reached out to voters who believe that they deserve more from their government than what they are getting.
On news feeds saturated with injustice and tragedy, that righteous and authentic message was a welcome one. Progressives who had been aligned with the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren channeled their anger into renewable energy for Markey’s campaign.
Markey’s message wasn’t calculated. He was honest in how he addressed systemic injustice and the hurt and anger that people feel. He spoke about his own upbringing, his family, and his home, “Where I’m from, no one expects to become a United States Senator.” He spoke to the young people who are afraid of what the future holds and who are suffering right now. Bold language translated into viral content. His campaign’s offbeat social media strategy embracing memes, vintage photos of young Ed, and quirky sayings endeared him to his followers. Young, online progressives all across the country felt seen and heard by this septuagenarian senator from Massachusetts.
Millenials and Zoomers, two generations of digital natives, were ready to go to battle. Encouraged by Ed Markey’s campaign, they organized in group chats and Slack channels, posted Markey memes, made the case for protecting a climate champion, shamed and embarrassed Markey’s opponent, and posted about and replied to news of the race with overwhelming force, sending thousands of people to volunteer and donate pages over the course of the campaign. People who had never paid attention to politics before, or had never even stepped foot in Massachusetts, found themselves scrolling through post after post about the father of the Green New Deal and his sneakers, wondering how they ended up on Ed Markey Twitter or TikTok.
Markey was witnessing the cavalry come over the hill and his campaign, fully adapted to an all-digital world, had volunteers breaking call records, raising small dollar donations, and turning out their friends and family to vote for a progressive fighter.
Ed Markey ran a campaign on the issues and on who he is: an experienced legislator from the working class. He offered solutions, provided a space for people to organize and take action, and he listened to the demands of a country suffering from racial injustice, the climate crisis, economic collapse, and a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. His investment in an aggressive, organic, and in-house digital operation allowed his message and organizing structure to dominate digital spaces and win a resounding victory for the progressive left.
Paul Bologna (Creative Director and Digital Communications Director) and Nicole Bardasz (Deputy Digital Communications Director) of the Ed Markey for U.S. Senate campaign