There are many reasons why working-class champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the biggest political upset of 2018 so far—a first-time candidate badly beating Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-NY, who was one of the Democratic Party’s top leaders in Washington, a prodigious fundraiser and boss of the Queens County Democratic Party.
But beyond her deeply resonant pledges to work on behalf of her district’s overlooked working-class voters, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in this week’s New York congressional primaries would not have been possible without her sophisticated use of online tools to organize, communicate, motivate and turn out voters.
Crowley’s campaign, as one insider told the New York Times, was from an earlier pre-internet era, one dominated by big dollar fundraising, and mass marketing via mailings of campaign flyers, and TV and radio ads. “We had people running this like a 1998 City Council race and not a 2018 congressional primary,” the staffer said.
While Ocasio-Cortez also used Crowley’s ties to corporate money, institutional power and residence in Virginia against him, there may be no better current example of how cyberspace has remade political campaigning: changing the tone, tactics and mechanics of participation. While Ocasio-Cortez spent the first part of the campaign speaking to people in their homes and holding coffee parties, she and her staff used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to send out messages seen by much larger audiences than comparable efforts by Crowley.
“The scope of the digital effort for a campaign like this was massive,” said Jake DeGroot, who helped manage her digital campaign. That effort included: using volunteers creating private online groups to coordinate social media posts; testing and refining messages in multilingual formats; purchasing nearly twice as many Facebook and Instagram ads as Crowley’s campaign; and creating a video that went viral — with help from progressive filmmakers. In short, her insurgency used technology to bypass the historic benefits of incumbency by building her own small donor base and independent media operation.
Ocasio-Cortez is expected to easily win the November general election, making her, at age 28, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and an unabashed proponent of the dignity-embracing agenda laid out by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign, including universal health care, free college tuition and job guarantees.
Her rise, while improbable to many Democrats, was no accident, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“We pulled off an enormous upset, against all established power and big money, because of a few groups and people that had the political courage and moral vision to support us early. I want to shine a light on not just HOW we did things, but WHO did them,” she tweeted on Thursday. She first thanked “a few groups and people that had the political courage and moral vision to support us early,” then listing national progressive groups, “Brand New Congress (@BrandNew535) & Justice Democrats (@justicedems) - 2 groups trying to get money out of politics,” which were formed by tech-savvy 2016 Sanders campaign veterans.
She continued, “2. The earliest activist groups that were brave enough to sit with me over a year ago, even if it risked their own opportunity: - Bronx Progressives @bxprogressives- Queens Barrios Unidos @QueensBarrios- Movement for Black Lives @BLMGreaterNY. 3. The ONLY Member of Congress in the entire country to acknowledge my existence before my election was Congressman @RoKhanna. He faced an immense amount of heat and pressure for doing so. We need to applaud his courage in doing so, and encourage more openness in our democracy.”
Ocasio-Cortez thanked the “first journalists to cover my candidacy,” and then the people who helped her create and spread her online presence.
“5. My campaign identity was designed by http://tandem.nyc - good friends of mine I had met as regulars at the restaurant I helped open,” she continued. “6. The Ocasio2018 campaign video pinned to my profile was produced by @means_tv, who messaged me on Twitter to make it happen. 7. Our BALLER website and digital team. Supporters put in long, long nights and endless hours coding our site, developing content, MAKING Ocasio2018 APPS, and analyzing data. Couldn’t have done it without them.”
There will be many ramifications from Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. Already, on Wednesday, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee nearly unanimously approved a compromise long sought by the party’s Berniecrat wing: only using the votes of elected Democratic National Convention delegates to nominate a presidential candidate on the first ballot. That proposal, which must still be approved by the Democratic National Committee, allows appointed convention superdelegates to vote if there’s a first-round deadlock.
But beyond the more overt political repercussions, her victory shows that old-school campaigns and legacy institutional power is being usurped by how online technology is changing campaigns and participation. Once established paradigms are falling apart or being supplanted, offering political newcomers great hope and roiling established institutions that have resisted change.