Pete Buttigieg and Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz” may not seem like they have a lot in common. But to meme fans and supporters of the presidential candidate, it all makes sense, especially if you happen to be part of a Facebook group celebrating “Pete Buttigieg’s Dank Meme Stash.”
“We all know how this one ends,” say the words above the viral image about the candidate, who is depicted as Dorothy, with President Donald Trump as the Wicked Witch of the West. (Buttigieg’s dog, Buddy, is Toto.)
Buttigieg is far from the only candidate with a supporter-led “dank” meme stash. The group’s creator Rachel, who requested her last name not be used, had launched Facebook groups for memes supporting several candidates, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro, earlier this year. Since February, the 27-year-old has focused her time on the Buttigieg group.
“Social media plays a huge role in political discourse, and this is a way to create and distribute lighter content to help people get to know Pete and feel connected about Pete’s message. Memeing across generations is a way that we can bridge gaps in culture and understanding,” Rachel says.
Memes — dank or otherwise — have become a mainstream tool for political campaigning, used by supporters and opponents (and sometimes campaigns themselves) to convey information with humor. Memes aren’t new in politics, of course. Illustrators have been drawing political cartoons nearly as long as there’s been newspapers. But they have garnered more attention in recent years with the rise of social media and as part of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Political strategists say they expect memes to be even more prevalent in the 2020 election.
What’s a political meme? It depends who you ask. Rachel, the moderator of the Pete Buttigieg’s Dank Meme Stash Facebook group, says internet memes typically refer to images, but memes can also be a “cultural unit,” like a MAGA hat. Her Buttigieg group has a “looser definition” than others she runs due to its broader age range. “The posts contain images I’d call graphics more than memes,” she says.
Moffatt, who served as digital director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, has experienced backlash from memes firsthand. After a 2012 debate when Romney said, “I love Big Bird,” as he was sharing his plan to eliminate federal funding to PBS, memes defending the Sesame Street character flooded Twitter. The Obama campaign later ran a TV ad mocking the comment. “Campaigns from the official side have not wanted to touch [memes] historically. It’s like all things in social media, balancing humanizing and diminishing. You’re starting to see a seismic shift now. There’s a mass market appeal,” Moffatt says.
Indeed, memes are going to appear whether the candidates want them to, or not, and it’s up to the campaigns to decide whether to embrace or shun them. Rob Shepardson, founding partner of marketing agency SS+K who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, says memes can be used strategically by candidates themselves.
“In politics, you want to define yourself, your opponent and what’s at stake. If you look at memes through that lens, it’s just another way to help candidates do that,” Shepardson says.
For example, in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign briefly embraced memes by using the photo of “Texts from Hillary” as her Twitter photo. (She later removed that after a State Department investigation into the matter.) Bernie Sanders’ campaign acknowledged a meme about the candidate when it tweeted, “A vote for Bernie is a vote for #BirdieSanders,” after a bird landed on his podium during a speech.