‘Pokemon Go,’ virtual interns and the race for the U.S. senate seat

A McCain intern answers questions at Phoenix campaign headquarters. (Photo by Socorro Carrillo/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — When one of Sen. John McCain’s campaign rivals stages an event, the Arizona Republican uses Snapchat GeoFilters to digitally advertise “Vote McCain” in the area. His opponent in the GOP primary, Kelli Ward, has galvanized hashtags and six second videos to get her point across. And interns for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, the Democratic candidate for McCain’s seat, are catching voters while they’re trying to catch Pokemon.

For 2016’s election season, Arizona is home to a tight race for the U.S. Senate. In one corner sits current Sen. John McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran, one of the longest sitting senators in Arizona history, and a former Republican Presidential nominee. In another, sits GOP newcomer, Kelli Ward, a former state senator, a private physician, and McCain’s opponent in the primary.

On the other sits Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is completing her third term representing Arizona in Congress and is likely to emerge from the Democratic primary.

The senate contenders may disagree on many day-to-day issues, but they find common ground in their fight to draw millennial voters both to the polls and for assistance in their campaigns.

Team McCain has employed an army of those who fall under the age of 35. More than 250 high school and college age interns have congregated statewide for McCain’s reelection campaign efforts. Plus, a majority of his paid campaign staff falls into the millennial age range.

Everyday the team sends out droves of unpaid interns and volunteers to knock on doors, while others plug away at a seemingly endless call list of possible supporters.

Since January, the group has made more than 2.3 million phone calls through their virtual efforts.

“I think the millennials have injected a vigor and enthusiasm into our campaign which is incredible,” said McCain. “Frankly, it has given me a new effort and also enthusiasm about my own campaign.”

McCain interns work all afternoon making calls and securing support for the senator. (Photo by Socorro Carrillo/Cronkite News)

McCain interns work all afternoon making calls and securing support for the senator. (Photo by Socorro Carrillo/Cronkite News)

McCain’s campaign is hoping to grab an untapped sector of voters.

“The millennials communicate with each other in different ways than previous generations did,” said McCain. “Obviously the internet, online, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all of those are what they’re best at. And that’s where I think we have to concentrate a lot of our efforts.”

McCain’s staffers have encouraged the interns to help shape strategy, which included the integration of Snapchat and Instagram advertising.

“For some us who’ve worked in the political world for a few years sometimes, we get stuck in a little bit of a bubble,” said Lorna Romero, McCain’s campaign communications director.

“So, we’re used to seeing things a certain way and so it’s nice to talk to them to see how certain messages are coming across or what’s the best way to send certain messages to millennials.”

Through Snapchat, the team has equipped themselves with quick videos and the photo/video messaging app’s newest feature GeoFilters, which are interactive graphics that can be laid over video or photos within the app. The team has taken advantage of the relatively low cost and placed GeoFilters at both their own events and competitors.

Although tweeting and snapping away has provided the team with a ton of fun, Instagram is where they’ve really put in work.

Instagram has served as a new way for the team to gain interns like Tessa Patterson.

“I was just on my phone one day and I was just scrolling through Instagram and I was kind of having a little bit of anxiety because it’s the summer before I’m graduating and I wanted to find an internship that I would enjoy and something that I felt would further progress me in my career. As I’m scrolling through, there was this little advertisement for a Team McCain internship.”

Patterson is just one of several interns who found out about the internship opportunity through Instagram. Some interns have even become involved across state lines. Those who wish to help the senator but don’t reside in Arizona participate in a “virtual internship” program.

“We’re basically building off the framework that we have for our physical internship program for interns that are out of state,” Romero said. “We’ve recruited these interns through different social media platforms, advertising to them, we interview them via telephone and as soon as they join their internship program, they participate in the same activities that our interns do here that come into the office.”

Once they’ve received the OK, the interns plug into the software through any device with WiFi and begin promoting the senator from wherever they are. The program has reached out to more than 30 universities from out of state to participate.

McCain’s strongest competition for the GOP nomination lies in Kelli Ward. In Ward’s corner sits 50 millennial interns and countless volunteers, and a bevy of social media outreach. Ward also has some remote interns but isn’t sure of the exact number.

Ward’s personal Twitter currently has more than 14,000 followers and more than 50,000 likes on Facebook. She has used a combination of face-to-face and online interaction to grab interns and volunteers.

Where Ward has used the internet to her favor is through her use of hashtags such as #retireMcCain. The hashtag can be seen all over her Twitter feed and Facebook page and even the title of her website.

“We’re trying to make it fun, we’re trying to impress upon people how important voting is and government actually affects everyday lives,” said Ward. “We’re reaching out to them on their playing field.”

The GOP newcomer added that she also has a presence on Snapchat, Vine and Instagram outside her larger circles on Twitter and Facebook.

While McCain and Ward may have virtual interns, Ann Kirkpatrick has virtual monsters to help her nab the senate seat.

Kirkpatrick will most likely battle whoever the Republican nominee is for the seat, but until then she too is using millennial power to help her along the way.

Currently, the Kirkpatrick team has more than 100 millennial interns across its seven offices. Kirkpatrick’s chief of staff is a millennial, as well as a majority of her campaign staff. Her interns work in similar ways to McCain’s, they phone bank, tweet and post on Facebook daily.

A Team Kirkpatrick intern poses while using

A Team Kirkpatrick intern poses while using “Pokemon Go.” The senate campaign has utiliized Pokestops to register voters. (Photo courtesy of Kirkpatrick for Senate)

The interns however, unlike most millennials, have decided to take the campaign offline. Jumping on the “Pokemon Go” wave, field organizers from Kirkpatrick’s team have used Pokestops to help register voters.

“Its really exciting what’s going on with Pokemon, and it’s fun and getting people engaged,” said Kirkpatrick. “The fact that one young woman was actually able to register 27 people at one event in the Valley is amazing. Just think if we do that all across the state it’s going to be fabulous.”

Other ways the team has begun to drum up support is through holding millennial round tables.

The discussions allow millennial voters to have their voices heard by the congresswoman. Kirkpatrick said she hopes to hold many more of these types of discussions before the upcoming election, to hear more about how issues like student loans are affecting life for this new block of voters.

“At this point millennials rule the world. We’re just out there hustling everyday and trying to connect with voters no matter their age, no matter their location, no matter their community,” said D.B Mitchell, Kirkpatrick’s communication director for her campaign.

Editors note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how many years Kirkpatrick has served in Congress. She is completing her third term.