How Selfies Became Elizabeth Warren's Secret Weapon

For Sen. Elizabeth Warren, selfies are a way to connect with supporters on the campaign trail and a marketing tool.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren is slowly edging her way up in the polls in a crowded field of 2020 presidential candidates, particularly after her successful performance in last week's Democratic debate. Her grand plan is straightforward: She has laid out detailed policy proposals on everything from paying for child care to prison reform, and she can clearly articulate how these plans can make people's lives better. But there's a secret sauce keeping her campaign chugging along: an almost-compulsive penchant for taking selfies with supporters.
Warren has taken thousands of selfies with her admirers (okay, technically, they're not selfies because a staffer usually takes them); 35,000 as of June 28 and surely counting. She even recently fought against her staff's insistence on having a rope line at campaign events because she wanted to be closer to the voters. "I’ve never been so proud to be so wrong," campaign manager Roger Lau said of their exchange. She convinced him with a people-power argument: "[I]t’s all the most aggressive people who got to the front. I don’t see little girls, I’m not able to shake hands with older people. What if we invited every single person who wanted to come to the stage to take a photo, you know, on stage?"
For Warren, taking photos with her growing cadre of supporters is both a way to get to know them — and, to get a little cynical about it, a marketing tool.
After a staffer snaps the photo, the campaign often posts it on social media, and encourages supporters to as well, which in turn floods our timelines with Warren's smiling face. This is a powerful form of free advertising, and in a campaign that has refused to take corporate donations (and reportedly struggled financially early on), it's an effective way to get the candidate's message across. It's also helped cement her brand, according to analysis by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm, for NBC News. "Elizabeth Warren is the candidate most associated with the term 'selfies' over the past month by a wide margin, and with mostly positive public sentiment around it," Zignal Labs CEO Josh Ginsberg said.
Patti Wood, body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, says selfies are a smart choice because they can help a candidate project an image of warmth. It's the same reason Warren actually calls some supporters on the phone to thank them for donations and talk issues (prompting a few of them to completely lose their shit in public places).
"I think it's incredibly smart," Wood told Refinery29. "She's a very strong woman, and she has very forceful body language. She is very definitive when she makes a statement, her voice comes down at the end. The selfies balance it all out, because she's in an intimate zone of space with people, inside their 'body bubble.' It shows that she's warm and likable."
Warren's genuine joy around taking these photos helps her establish a connection with people, said Wood. "She smiles a lot in these selfies, which contrasts to when she's speaking about serious issues and her facial expressions become serious," she said. "She often opens up her arms and lifts them high in a dramatic way as she greets people, as if they're long-lost friends. It's big and it's high, which shows both her power and joy in that moment; she makes it feel like she really wants to be with them in that moment."
Selfies also help Warren maintain her image of being a "woman of the people," an important message considering many of her policies aim to eradicate economic inequality. "Sometimes I see 'power people' stay 'up and down' in selfies, and she's saying, 'We're equals' with her body language rather than trying to maintain her power," Wood said.
Warren has said that the photos are an opportunity for her to connect with voters on issues that concern them.
"Sometimes it's an issue that really matters to them and someone will say to me: 'I’ve got $68,000 in student loan debt. I’m teaching public school. There's no way I can hold this together,'" she told CNN. "Or, 'I have a child with a serious illness and all of her life she’s going to have had a preexisting condition. Please don't let them change the law.'"
Taking selfies has become the new autograph on the campaign trail, and other candidates, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, are taking a cue from Warren. According to Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, it's not only a smart strategy, but a powerful form of storytelling because images can deliver more information than text — "they include emotion, context, and attributed meaning."
It's also a more personal way to connect with voters. "The shared moment is key," Dr. Rutledge told Refinery29. "If it were just people shuffling by for photo ops, it wouldn’t be as effective. It gives the potential voter a sense of personal connection and gives them a stake in her candidacy. The nature of selfies is that they are shared, and Warren’s campaign benefits from individuals who post their Warren selfies on social media. It also has the advantage of creating an image and narrative of Warren in a human and personal context."

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