A group of redditors at a campaign event for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Winterset, Iowa, on Jan. 26, 2016. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)
DES MOINES, Iowa — TBernie Sanders hey call it “Operation Iowa.”
In the past five days, a group of people on the online forum Reddit have been working to mobilize out-of-state volunteers to flood rural Iowa on behalf of Sen. Bernie Sanders as his presidential campaign heads into the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
The effort is being led by 26-year-old Sanders campaign volunteer Alexander Rhodes through the “SandersForPresident” subreddit, as highly topic-specific sections of the webBernie Sanders site are known. In a phone conversation with Yahoo on Wednesday, Rhodes said he began posting his calls to action on Jan. 22. Since then, he has written multiple times on Reddit and also posted an item on Medium, naming the effort Operation Iowa and describing it as a “grassroots project” rather than an official campaign initiative.
“I’m acting as a middle-man ‘connector’ between you and campaign staff on the ground. I have many friends in the campaign and have the ability to get people assigned to field offices really quickly,” Rhodes wrote.
On Medium, Rhodes explained Bernie Sanders that the majority of the Reddit volunteers would be used for canvassing and knocking on the doors of voters who are thinking about caucusing for Sanders. Once volunteers arrive in Iowa, the Sanders campaign is helping them find accommodations at the homes of Sanders supporters.
“We need your help. We’re pretty well-off in the big cities, but those make up only a number of caucus events. There are dozens of other caucuses throughout the state, and those regions are currently significantly understaffed,” Rhodes wrote. “This project is intended to bring much-needed reinforcements into the understaffed rural areas of Iowa.”
According to the Sanders campaign, as of Monday, at least 160 people had signed up to volunteer through the Operation Iowa form posted on Reddit. By Wednesday, Rhodes said there were more than 200 sign-ups, though he claimed that figure really meant a higher number of volunteers.
“These people, some of them are submitting with three-four volunteers at a time. They’re saying, ‘Hey, I have a car, and I’m bringing three of my friends,’” Rhodes explained.
Along with gathering volunteers, the members of the SandersForPresident subreddit claim to have raised more than $1 million for the campaign.
When not organizing for Sanders, Rhodes is a Web developer and the founder of NoFap, which he described as an online community dedicated to helping people recover from addiction to pornography. He said he was inspired to create the site based on his own experiences.
Rhodes said he hopes to keep recruiting volunteers from Reddit as the primaries continue. Because of this, he has come up with a name for the project as it extends beyond Operation Iowa. Rhodes is calling his Reddit recruitment operation the “Sanderstorm.”
“The people who are helping me — they’re actually called Sanderstormtroopers,” Rhodes said.
There were six of those Sanderstormtroopers in the crowd that showed up at an event at the Sanders campaign field office in Winterset, Iowa, on Tuesday afternoon. They were treated to an appearance from Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of the ice cream brand Ben& Jerry’s.
Brendan Carpenter, a redditor who Bernie Sanders came to Iowa from Salt Lake City, said he found out about Sanders on the site.
“They had a post there that said they really needed volunteers out in rural areas, so I asked my boss if I could get a week off to come out here because they were understaffed,” Carpenter explained.
Carpenter said he was staying in a spare room provided by a Sanders supporter. He wasn’t the only redditor from Salt Lake who came to hear Ben and Jerry speak.
Clark Newhall, who said he is a retiree, told Yahoo he and Carpenter realized they live in the same city when they met at the event.
“We didn’t know anybody,” Newhall said. “I figured since Obama didn’t get us single-payer health care like I thought he would, then Bernie’s going to do it. and I’m here to help him.”
Joe Elliott, a 20-year-old student, came down from Michigan State University.
“It just kept growing. I’ve seen posts, buses are coming, you know. People are coming up from Florida,” Elliott told Yahoo.
Sanders is performing especially well among younger voters. While Reddit is typically associated with millennials, Newhall, who is 66, bristled when we pointed out he didn’t seem like a typical redditor.
“I’ve been online all kinds of ways for 30 years,” Newhall said. “I’ve been on Reddit since it started.”
Sam Hawkins, a 27-year-old forester from West Virginia, said he was able to come to Iowa because his work is seasonal. Hawkins suggested Sanders’ popularity on Reddit isn’t just a demographic phenomenon. Rather, he argued, Sanders benefits from the site’s format, which gives premier placing to posts that are popular and widely “up-voted” by users.
“People decide what gets shown, and then the people are deciding that Bernie needs to be shown,” Hawkins said. “I mean that while you could say that that’s a demographically related thing to Reddit, I think that it’s just because I think that if you give America the choice, they’re going to choose Bernie.”
For his part, Rhodes suggested Sanders appeals to redditors because he has not changed his positions during his career.
“Redditors come from all walks of life. You can’t really typecast them as white males in their teens and 20s anymore. That’s just not the case.” Rhodes said, adding, “But the Reddit user base, they’re users of the Internet, so they understand that if there’s a fact presented by a candidate … they’re going to do the research. They’re going to use the Internet to verify what people are saying. So, I believe that Bernie Sanders is such an incredible candidate in the eyes of the Reddit community because he is the only candidate out there, one of the few politicians out there, who has been saying the same thing for decades. His record is the most consistent record I’ve ever seen.”
Rhodes also attributes Sanders’ popularity on Reddit to the fact that his democratic socialist ideals don’t represent American “politics as usual.”
“I think now is the time to really utilize this incredible tool of connection that we have as human beings for the first time in history to win a campaign as a non-establishment candidate,” Rhodes said.
Sanders, whose campaign has used a digital fundraising operation to pull in a record number of donations, isn’t the first unconventional candidate who turned to the Internet to find new ways to connect with supporters. Another progressive Democrat from Vermont, former Gov. Howard Dean, was widely credited with using innovative online techniques to build his army of “Deaniacs” during his unsuccessful run in the 2004 presidential primary. Republican Ron Paul also took momentum from the Internet as he took on his party’s establishment in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
Though Rhodes is spearheading the effort to send redditors to Iowa tocanvass for Sanders, he is not planning to leave his home in Pittsburgh.
“I figured I could be way more effective from Bernie Sanders where I am now just in working to get more and more volunteers into Iowa,” Rhodes said. “I feel like we’re so close to the caucus day that eight hours away from my computer — eight hours of travel — I believe that would be too much time away from getting other people into Iowa. So, right now, I’m holding down the fort.”
Along with encouraging redditors to go to Iowa and connecting them with the Sanders campaign, Rhodes said he has set up a screening program for potential volunteers. Along with his friend Matthew Plummer, Rhodes said he has a group of more than 60 people who are reviewing submissions from redditors who want to canvass for Sanders.
“Somebody on the Bernie Sanders ‘SandersForPresident’ subreddit who is offering their home to people … I don’t want to send them somebody who you wouldn’t want in your home,” said Rhodes. “So we definitely are doing our due diligence and making sure that all of the people who we’re sending to Iowa are vetted to whatever degree we could vet them.”
Most of the Reddit contingent that showed up for Sanders in Winterset on Tuesday said they had just arrived in Iowa that day and were not sure where they’d be staying. However, Newhall noted, the campaign said it had room to house all of them.
“We’ve got sleeping bags,” Hawkins said. “We’re ready to crash anywhere.”