After the end of her workday, Robyn Gedrich goes home and takes to her smartphone where, like many in their early 20s, she opens Tinder. But Gedrich isn't on the app to find someone to date or a hookup. The 23-year-old from Brick, New Jersey, spends four hours a day, on average, campaigning for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to be the next U.S. president.
On Tinder, Gedrich chats with people nearby about why they should “feel the Bern.” Personally, she says, she agrees with each part of Sanders’ platform for the Democratic nomination. As someone who cannot afford to pay for the last 60 credits of college, she wishes higher education were more accessible. She wants a president who is progressive on clean energy and climate change. She sympathizes with her matches who claim to be illegal immigrants and hope the country will support them.
During its three-year history, Tinder has become known as a go-to destination for 20-somethings to find hookups. No presidential campaign will officially cop to campaigning there, but politicking is happening on a freelance basis and no one is officially discouraging it. It’s not surprising that Sanders supporters — many young and new to the political process — are most vocal about it. While it’s difficult to assess how widespread Tinder use is in this political cycle, political strategists are watching closely to see how it plays out.
Campaigns are interested in any social app with which voters, especially young voters, spend time. “Campaigns should spend time and money any place that a voter is spending time and money,” said Vincent Harris, the former digital lead of Rand Paul’s campaign.
With Tinder, smartphone owners are empowered to converse with those nearby, without having to leave the comfort of their homes and with the ability to block anyone.
And yet Tinder, a network known for casual hookups, presents problems. While campaigns have become very quick to embrace social platforms as soon as they gain traction, Tinder use is being kept on the down-low. “I don’t think any campaign would want to risk the perception that they’re invading personal space,” Anshul Jain, co-author of “The Social Media President: Barack Obama and the Politics of Digital Engagement.”
Gedrich began using Tinder to campaign for Sanders last month. Yet, evidence of Tinder as a political tool dates back much further. Jessica Garafola, 22, of Pompano Beach, Florida, created a Tumblr page in October, tindcamp.tumblr.com, where she shares her campaigning for Sanders from Tinder.
“No one from corporate media wants him to be president, so we have to rally our friends, our family,” Garafola said.
Early in the campaign season, media outlets declared 2016 the “Snapchat election,” but since then campaigns have felt its limits. While nearly every candidate has created an account to share footage from the campaign trail, the storytelling app isn’t as much seen as a campaign tool for supporters.
Think of Snapchat as the new age newspaper, press release or TV ad and Tinder as modern-day, door-to-door campaigning. “A lot of people my age aren’t going to go out and campaign somewhere,” Gedrich said. “People on Tinder are already trying to have a conversation with you. If they do want to talk with me, I can try to get them to talk about something else with me.”
Sanders supporters, including Gedrich, made headlines earlier this month for campaigning and then subsequently being blocked on the dating app. But the act of campaigning is not against Tinder’s terms and conditions. In fact, when reached by Reuters on why the company had blocked the accounts, a Tinder spokesperson said: “We whole-heartedly support people sharing their political views on Tinder, but we don’t allow spamming. So feel free to spread the Bern, just don’t spam.”
While Gedrich’s account was reinstated, Garafola’s is still blocked by Tinder, which did not respond to an International Business Times query as to why.
But Tinder isn’t the only dating app that has proved useful to campaigns. Bumble, an app founded by Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe, has also seen evidence of campaigning. “Our personal view as a company is that supporting one candidate and another, showcasing your political views is not harming somebody,” Wolfe said. “If you want to connect with people and explain why you believe in one candidate, that’s fine.”
Bumble has not yet partnered with any campaign. “It’s something we’re thinking about, but we don’t want to exclude anyone’s views,” Wolfe said.
Garafola downloaded Tinder last summer but quickly stopped using it after she said most conversation resulted in people needing attention after getting over bad breakups. In October, she thought of a different use. “People my age hold a bigger stake in the outcome of this election than baby boomers. That’s why they are engaged on Tinder, on Facebook, on Reddit, and elsewhere to spread the message,” Garafola said.
In the last year, Tinder has entered local politics as well. Adam Morley, 31, a Democrat running for state representative in Florida District 24, is messaging on Tinder to connect with local residents. “I’m not here for hook ups. I’m here to make things happens,” his mini bio on Tinder reads. He’s also married and has a baby.
Tinder “makes it really easy to target people in my district. Rather than using other forms of online media where you don’t know if you are targeting the right people, Tinder has been really effective,” Morley said.
In the past six months, Morley has spoken with hundreds of voters on the app and not always about his campaign. “I don’t want to push politics. I want people to know my name and that I’m human,” he said. Morley’s success on Tinder has gone far beyond getting people to know his name. He’s found campaign volunteers via Tinder who now are canvassing and going door-to-door for him.
Even with all the billions of dollars directed to campaign financing and TV ads that attract millions of eyes, Tinder is a throwback to door-to-door campaigning. “Political campaigns are built on one-to-one voter contact,” said Dr. Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. “Tinder mirrors the traditional campaign technique, the most persuasive way. You’re much more likely to be persuaded by your neighbor.”
Having a social and digital presence is key now given that smartphone owners spend three hours on mobile devices, not including voice activities, on average, eMarketer estimated.
But Tinder’s audience does not match every campaign. “Our main audience is not the Tinder audience. Our main audience is the married, 45-plus audience,” Harris said, referring to the Republican party.
Only 4 percent of Tinder users are older than 45, a study by the GlobalWebIndex found. The report estimates 38 percent of Tinder users are 16 to 24 years old. Tinder boasts 96 million daily active users, a November filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission stated.
Earlier this month, feminist leaders Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright said young women are supporting Sanders to get with boys, which supporters, including Garafola, called outrageous. “It’s total irony. My Tinder was a representation that I am not here to meet boys. I’m only here to support Bernie,” Garafola said.
Some fear overt campaigning on Tinder could harm a candidate because of its association with sex. For now, Tinder campaigning is happening whether the candidates like it or not. “We still have a morality clause in campaigns particularly at a presidential, national level,” Vertenten said. “But the truth of the matter is that it’s all networking whether you’re using it as a hookup, or solicit support for a cause or a candidate.”
Gedrich, whose account was blocked two weeks ago but has since been reopened, said she has gone back to campaigning daily on Tinder. “I’m just on there as someone to talk to,” she said.