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This article was published on January 17, 2012

How Reddit turned one congressional candidate’s campaign upside down

How Reddit turned one congressional candidate’s campaign upside down

We’ve all become accustomed to the presence of social media in American politics, but few, if any, could have predicted the rise of Reddit as a force in the coming cycle of elections. Here at TNW we have covered the topic a number of times, openly asking if Reddit is to take a role large enough to merit scrutiny in the current election cycle. We’re ready to call it: yes.

Perhaps no more indicative of this is the candidacy of Rob Zerban, a candidate for Wisconsin 1st congressional district. Why Mr. Zerban, and not a race from a larger, more heavily populated state? The story begins with Paul Ryan, and the general animus that Reddit has for his policies. But that’s only the half of it, as Zerban is also staunchly opposed to the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which Reddit itself is virulently opposed to.

Even that, however, doesn’t explain the media coverage that Zerban has received in the last several weeks, with a great many of those stories mentioning Reddit. It’s a tale worth telling, so we called up the man himself, and had him tell us the story. Of course, we’re retelling a story told to us by a politician, so keep your de-rosifying glasses handy. Let’s go.

Zerban raised slightly more than a half million dollars for his campaign in 2011. That’s a tidy sum, but not an eye raising quantity; politics in the United States is only becoming more expensive. However, some 220,000 of that final tally came in the last calendar quarter. And of that 220,000 more than 15,000 was raised in just a matter of days.

You can call that the Reddit effect.

In our interview, Mr. Zerban noted that he has always taken the time, through his entire campaign, to talk to both volunteers and supporters. “I’m always asked,” he told TNW in describing his phone calls, “is this really you?” That level of granular interaction led to his holding an ‘AMA’ on Reddit. The acronym ‘AMA’ stands for ‘Ask Me Anything.’ Essentially, Zerban unfolded a chair, sat down, said hello to the Reddit community, and took its questions en masse.

What followed was shocking, Zerban told TNW, as the queries and posts poured in by the hundred. It was a much larger reaction than had been anticipated. Zerban was not phased: “It was incredible.” In some ways it was a perfect storm: a personable, anti-SOPA candidate running against the disliked (by Reddit) Paul Ryan answering questions as they came. It went on and on.

Two days later, Zerban went back to thank Reddit for its sending him over 15,000 dollars in that 48 hours. At that point, he also noted that his campaign had signed up ‘hundreds’ of new volunteers. In short, a candidate that was relatively unknown became a common name to many, raised funds at a sharply elevated rate, and found a first spike in search volume.

You can read more on the SOPA bruhaha that Paul Ryan, Zerban’s incumbent competition here, but we bring you this story to show off just what Reddit can now do: change the national political discourse. Zerban has managed to make his race with Ryan, a very well-funded and if polarizing, certainly eminent figure in American Politics, into a real run. I suspect that this is only the first salvo; Reddit, as a community, is learning that when it throws its weight and cash around, it can have real impact. Once the process is tuned, who knows what it might accomplish.