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The old man and the stream

The campaign wants everyone it can find on board, and is working with Streamlabs on Twitch to do it

It might seem unusual to find a 77-year-old embracing Twitch — but it probably helps that he’s a presidential candidate. Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate, has a message for gamers: he’s on Twitch with them. (And, his campaign staff agrees, Bernie stands in solidarity with gamers.)

The Sanders campaign for president started broadcasting on Twitch the night of the first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential election. It was the second political campaign to appear on the site — according to CNET, the first candidate to join was Andrew Yang, in July 2018 — and it marked the first time such a high-profile contender for the presidency joined the live-streaming platform for more than a quick visit.

The point of Sanders’ stream is to connect with people where they are. “It’s another opportunity, I think, to tap in to a potentially supportive audience that we may not be hitting other ways,” says Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’ director of digital comms. “Our goal with Twitch is to not only let people know what we’re doing on the campaign every day, and what Bernie’s doing — but also hear from them, and bring their opinion into what we’re trying to do and into the political process.”

So far, Sanders’ channel has mostly broadcast town halls and rallies; the candidate himself rarely shows up on streams. Even so, 70,000 people followed Sanders’ account on Twitch in the first 24 hours they were on the platform, and 20,000 people tuned in for the first Democratic debate on their channel, according to his communication staff.

No one’s exactly sure who came up with the idea, Miller-Lewis says. But internally, they’d been kicking around the idea for a live-streaming show, and Twitch was a natural place for that to live. It helped that Sanders thought it important that he had a show again. Sanders had one on public access cable back in the ’80s. In the ’90s, he was making videos in DC to send back to his constituents in Vermont. “I think this next stage with Twitch and live streaming is sort of the natural extension of his interest and focus on finding new ways to communicate with people and bring them into the political process,” Miller-Lewis says.

The channel began when the campaign team contacted Streamlabs, a San Francisco-based startup that creates software for live-streaming platforms, on May 29th. For Streamlabs, it was a huge opportunity: one of its first high-profile Creator Sites, which give streamers a page and custom tools to manage it. But there was a hitch: donations, which had to comply with Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations on how political campaigns can raise and spend money.

Twitch offers its own, built-in monetization options; every time a viewer subscribes to a Twitch channel, the revenue is split evenly between the broadcaster and the platform. But Sanders’ team didn’t take advantage of that because Twitch’s current policy is to demonetize any official Twitch channel set up by a politician, says a Twitch spokesperson.

I was curious about what might happen, though, so I got in touch with the FEC. As it happens, raising money for electoral politics changed with the advent of the internet. Over the years, the Commission has issued what they call Advisory Opinions (AOs) that give campaigns guidance about what’s legal and what’s not in online fundraising in order to keep them compliant with the provisions enshrined in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

While there’s nothing specifically about Twitch — “Sorry, my son has been on Twitch but that’s the extent of my knowledge of it,” wrote Judith Ingram, the FEC’s press officer — there are AOs on everything from bitcoin donations and cryptocurrency mining to loyalty programs. They apply in every circumstance that’s “materially indistinguishable” from a previous one, which means that in the future the FEC might eventually issue an opinion for Twitch itself, if the platform ever changes its policy.

Streamlabs built Sanders a custom site that sidestepped the donation problem entirely. The page allows viewers to donate directly to the Sanders campaign — through ActBlue, the FEC-certified Democratic fundraising site — without having to stop watching the stream (or the chat). It took two weeks to create Sanders’ setup, from initial outreach to publishing live. “It’s another opportunity, I think, to tap into a potentially supportive audience that we may not be hitting other ways,” Miller-Lewis says.

“In addition to Bernie’s team, two more campaigns have reached out to us to create something similar,” says Ali Moiz, the CEO of Streamlabs. Streamlabs predicts it’ll hear from more candidates in the near future.

During a recent weekday morning stream, Sanders’ donation page hosted a lively Twitch chat for the 411 people watching his town hall in Berlin, NH. (The people in the room in New Hampshire were enticed, in Sanders’ words, by the prospect of free breakfast.) People in the chat were posting emotes and asking whether they could vote for Bernie through Amazon Prime — a joke that lands better when you know that Amazon gives one free Twitch subscription per month to its Prime users, because Amazon owns Twitch.

“Twitch is incredibly valuable to our campaign, because you get instantaneous feedback from people you are talking to as the stream is going,” says Bill Neidhardt, the Sanders campaign’s Midwest press secretary. “Sure, if you post on Twitter, you’ll get some people replying to you, but there’s something about that instantaneous feedback that you get on Twitch that drives our discussion. I mean, if you watch our streams, we’re reading the comments, we are reacting to them.”

Those people who the campaign is reacting to — at least on Twitch — are gamers, a fact that isn’t lost on Sanders. Sanders, says Miller-Lewis, was “one of the first people to speak up and weigh in on behalf of gamers getting a larger share of those profits and trying to form a union.” While I’m not sure gamers writ large would be able to form their own union, as they’re not employed by a single corporation or a professional class, game developers could. “The system has been rigged in favor of large corporations,” he continues. “And the people who are actually doing the work aren’t really getting a share of the profits.” Which is true. Though it does raise the question: is Bernie a gamer?

“What does it mean to be a gamer?” asks Neidhardt rhetorically. “Bernie stands in solidarity with those who are developing games and players. Does that make him a gamer? I’d say so.”

“He’s a gamer in the same way that he’s a millennial,” says Miller-Lewis.

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