Democrats Seek Young Voters, and the Memes That Move Them

Michael Bossetta, a fellow at the Center for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen, who specializes in new forms of political participation through social media, noticed through his research of Facebook ads that Mr. Buttigieg, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington were among the candidates aggressively targeting people ages 18 to 25. He said that even though younger voters cannot donate as much as older generations, “they have more tech skills that can create very organic messaging and growth.”

As a case in point, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and a political newcomer who has run a campaign oriented toward social media, has reached the threshold of at least 65,000 individual donors needed to participate in the Democratic debates this summer. Some more established candidates, like the former housing secretary Julián Castro, still haven’t reached it.

Breaking down policies into bite-size components that can be expressed visually on social media platforms like Instagram can help tap into younger people online, Mr. Bossetta said.

“It’s this concept of light politics,” he said. “The content that is sort of shareable, light in the sense that it can travel across social media, and not heavy in terms of policy. They’re sort of very universal messages.”

For the Yang campaign, “being a memeable person” is important, said Zach Graumann, Mr. Yang’s campaign manager. He added that memes made candidates seem accessible and approachable.

“That’s where $1,000 a month is memeable,” Mr. Graumann said, referring to the campaign’s signature proposal of a universal basic income that the government would provide to every American adult.

Some fear that reducing issues to Instagram-friendly images and memes can produce hollow and superficial politics, but Mr. Bossetta said young people can be astute, skeptical consumers of news.

“They’re pretty good at what’s authentic and what’s not,’’ he said. “They’re so in tune with the idiosyncrasies of the social and cultural dynamics of these platforms that they know when something is totally scripted, slightly scripted or genuine.”