Watch CBSN Live

2020 Democratic candidates embrace the selfie line

Selfies on the campaign trail
Selfies on the campaign trail 05:41

When Elizabeth Warren addressed the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention earlier this month, she spoke of all the town halls she had conducted and all of the questions she had taken from voters. But "the real measure of democracy," she said, was "more than 50,000 selfies."

Presidential Candidates Hit The Soapbox At The Iowa State Fair
Senator Elizabeth Warren poses for a selfie at the Iowa State Fair on August 10, 2019. Getty

By Thursday evening, the Warren campaign announced the presidential hopeful had reached her 60,000th "selfie."

In the Democratic race for the White House, the so-called "selfie line" has become a key feature of campaign events, with voters willing to wait for hours to take a photo with a candidate. An experience once limited to fundraisers or elite supporters has now become so mainstream that candidates build extra time into their schedules to allow for photo lines with anyone who comes to see them. The process allows voters to have an instant social media record of their direct connection with candidates, revolutionizing retail politics.

But the images taken on smartphones across the country are doing more than just capturing a moment: they serve as a free mass-marketing tool for campaigns. Heading into 2020, the old adage of "a picture is worth a thousand words" has evolved into "a picture is worth a thousand impressions." Candidates have integrated the selfie lines into their broader messaging and digital strategy, too. 

The photo lines have also led to policy promises made by candidates vying to be commander in chief and a reminder that every voter has a personal experience to share.

"I was really going to build a grassroots movement. Small dollar donations, volunteers and selfie lines," Warren recently told CBS News in an interview. "So it's been just a part of the fabric from the beginning, and after a while it really took off to be part of this."

On Monday, supporters lined up for nearly four hours in Washington Square Park after Warren's rally for the selfie line. Men, women and children all looking forward to their moment with the senator. Her campaign claims that 20,000 people were in attendance for the speech. By the time the selfie line wrapped up, it was close to midnight.

"Everyone gets a chance to say, this is what matters to me. This is a part of that," said Warren.

Warren is known for saying she had a plan for nearly everything, and the long lines have led to some of those proposals. In fact, she claimes that it was her conversation with a woman in a selfie line that led to her campaign promise to nominate an education secretary who taught in public school.

Warren isn't the only candidate whose policy proposals have been inspired by a meeting for a selfie.

Senator Kamala Harris takes a selfie with a union worker at a Labor Day rally on September 2, 2019, in Los Angeles. Getty

"It's about really engaging with people," Senator Kamala Harris told CBS News. "Usually, I walk that line after I speak, and I get feedback. And I get questions. And people share personal stories. And it is one of the most important and meaningful um interactions that I have at any of these events."

According to Harris, everything from her proposal for a federal investment to close the teacher pay gap to students talking about their student loan debt has been brought up in selfie lines.

"For me it's really just about the interaction, and then if people want to take a picture, we do it and you know, and it's fun," said Harris.

At the same time, it can serve as a moment of emotional connection. At campaign stops from coast to coast, images capture people sharing their most personal moments.

Bernie Sanders poses for a selfie with a couple on Sunset Blvd on June 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. Getty

"This is the truth of this. There's a lot of pain in America, a lot of pain," said Senator Bernie Sanders. "That pain is not reflected in what Congress does. It's often not seen in the media. And what I tried to do is get people to be honest."

Asked if there was an instance on the rope line that personally resonated with him, Sanders told CBS News there has been "more than one."

"What do you say to the woman who says I've lost my child, if we'd had decent health care that would not have been the case," he said. "I've heard people say, because I can't afford prescription drugs, I'm rationing my insulin. I'm a diabetic rationing, rationing my insulin. That is just, it moves you to the core. And that should not be what's happening in this country."

Democratic Presidential Candidate Former Vice President Joe Biden Holds Campaign Event In Davenport, Iowa
Joe Biden takes a selfie with attendees on June 11, 2019, in Davenport, Iowa.  Getty

Joe Biden also uses the moments for deeper personal connection. It may be that the tragedies that Biden has had to  endure so publicly in his own life have made him a figure of empathy and wisdom for voters. Many of his interactions, though brief, have often led to memorable moments. Recently, a young man on the rope line told the former vice president he had a stutter and Biden shared his own experiences. "It does not define you, it cannot define you," Biden told him.  

"People want to be awful lot of people ask me personal questions," Biden told CBS News. "They're frightened about their circumstances or they suffered a serious loss...people just want to know, we're gonna get through this, right? I'm gonna be OK"

Presidential Candidates Descend Upon The Iowa State Fair
Senator Cory Booker takes a selfie with a volunteer at the Iowa State Fair on August 10, 2019. Getty

Cory Booker has been merging selfies and politics since 2014, and has come up with innovative ways to connect with supporters. "I've been exploring and experimenting different ways to do this for a long time. I've had selfie videos for people online," he told CBS News in an interview. "I'm excited I can continue to push that envelope. And I want to make myself available. I don't want to speak and then go away. I want to stick around with people."

Booker may be right about staying power of the selfie this election. "The selfie is the modern version of the yard sign," says Tara McGowan, founder and CEO of the digital strategy firm ACRONYM.

"You have to think about where the selfie goes after it's taken ... In today's digital age each selfie could be worth thousands of free impressions" which amount to big savings for the campaigns, McGowan says. "The excitement that it gives the person to have an actual picture to share…they are doing the work on behalf of the campaign in sharing their enthusiasm for this candidate on social media."

Elizabeth Warren Campaigns With Hillary Clinton In Cincinnati
Hillary Clinton takes a selfie with campaign supporters on June 27, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Getty

While candidates in past elections have been known to take selfies, it's this election that has seen a full embrace of the selfie. Hillary Clinton was perfectly willing to pose for a selfie but thought they were a flawed way of connecting with voters. In What Happened, her book following the 2016 campaign, she wrote, "If you see me in the world and want a selfie and I'm not on the phone or racing to get somewhere, I'll be glad to take one with you...but I think selfies come at a cost. Let's talk instead! … That feels real to me. A selfie is so impersonal — although it does give your wrist a break from autographs, now obsolete." 

Donald Trump Campaigns In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump takes a selfie with a supporter on April 21, 2016, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Getty

For his part, President Donald Trump has been seen smiling on rope lines as fans snap pictures. But even before he was elected in 2016, Trump favored big rallies over retail politics, and mostly flew in for specific events on his private jet.

Some strategists wonder how long candidates like Warren can sustain spending several hours taking photos with voters at each event. But for now, the campaign shows no signs of changing course. 

At Chicago O'Hare on Thursday, a line started to form. It wasn't to check bags, get through TSA security or board an airplane. CBS News' Ed O'Keefe was heading back to Iowa and spotted it: Warren on her way to campaign in the Hawkeye state. But there, in one of the busiest airports in the world, people were lining up to take a selfie with the candidate.

Elizabeth Warren greets fellow travelers in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Ed O'Keefe / CBS News
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue