How Memes Shaped the 2016 Presidential Election

We talked to the creators of Electmeme, who are looking for this season's dankest political memes.

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Image via Complex Original
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Throughout this election season, memes have surged past the front page of Reddit and into news headlines, both shaping and reflecting candidates’ popularity or their doomed campaigns.

Electmeme is a website that monitors these trends and allows users to upvote their favorites. When it launched April 18, it featured 200 popular memes and has since grown to 210 memes and 22,629 votes.​ We spoke to two of Electmeme's creators, Victor Pineiro and Noah Levinson, about the power of memes and their effect on politics. 

Levinson explained that trending memes reflect the current race: For example, the first wave of memes on the website skewed largely Republican because of sheer number of candidates—17 at the start—and chaotic, circus-like debates.

As campaigns developed, memes became more absurd and pervasive, from insisting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is Canadian to likening Ben Carson to Jesus. Now, the majority of memes are related to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

Sanders has long been ahead of other candidates in the meme department, and even has a devoted Facebook page called Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash. He has inspired a bevy of bizarre ways to show support, from the Buff Bernie Coloring Book to the Men Who Bern Instagram (and its subsequent topless calendar). In March, a bird landed on Sanders’ podium during a Portland rally and inspired the Birdie Sanders meme, which surged to the front of the meme board and remains in eighth place this week.

Save us, Birdie Sanders. You're our only hope.

Although Sanders is basically winning the meme race, his support hasn’t exactly translated to the polls. He still has 1,473 delegates to Clinton's 2,240 and it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that he’ll catch up. Conversely, Trump has dominated the board, but mostly because of memes disparaging him.

“The number of memes isn't necessarily a positive correlation to how the candidate is viewed,” Pineiro said. “A lot of these memes are poking fun at [the candidate].”

That memes don't directly translate to which candidate has the most support doesn't make them any less relevant. Sometimes, the sheer meme-force directed at a candidate forces them to respond. Clinton’s perceived pandering has been a point of contention throughout her candidacy, from the response to her temporary Rosa Parks-inspired logo to an awkward abuela article accused of “Hispandering.” Now, it seems she’s in on the joke. In a recent interview when she was asked about pandering, she quipped, “Is it working?”

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Perhaps the most bizarre example of a barrier-breaking meme is the joke that Cruz is the Zodiac killer, something that is chronologically unfeasible but still popular enough to prompt his wife Heidi Cruz to respond at an Indiana campaign event last week. “Well, I’ve been married to him for 15 years, and I know pretty well who he is, so it doesn’t bother me at all. There’s a lot of garbage out there," she said.

Other trends poking fun at Cruz include things that he resembles—like a blob fish or Kevin from the Officeand his awkward attempted-kiss with his daughter, which remains in 11th place on Electmeme despite his recent announcement to suspend his campaign.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was also trampled by memes this election season. Trump set the tone by repeatedly deriding him in early debates, and the internet followed suit. Many made fun of Bush’s low energy and “slow and steady wins the race” approach by meme-ing him into a turtle, or dubbing him “most likely to fall asleep at how own speech.”

Perhaps the most devastating meme-moment of this season is Bush’s “please clap” moment, when he had to beg an unenthusiastic crowd to cheer for him at a New Hampshire rally. The incident marked the beginning of the end for his campaign. Though it happened four months ago, the moment ranks No. 13 on Electmeme, making it clear that the internet's digital curation will outlast Bush's campaign itself.

“There is a lot to be said about how a bunch of tweets and memes took down Jeb Bush,” Levinson said. “Jeb Bush by all means should have been the candidate––there was so much money behind him. In a lot of ways social media and memes, and Trump supporting it all, have elevated a lot of negativity.”

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While being the butt of a meme sounds awful, being irrelevant might be even worse. A lack of meme-ability reflects a candidate’s inability to make waves, like in the case of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“Not only did he have trouble getting good PR, you also see it in the memes,” Levinson said. “There are very few Kasich memes, and it's interesting how his inability to get stories is married in the fact that the internet also seems to ignore him when it comes to memes and overall conversation.”

Meme-silence can serve as a death sentence, or simply reflect the end of a campaign.

“When the candidates drop out, the memes sort of end for that person, and it is very rare for them to pop back in,” Pineiro said. “Once you drop out, once you end your candidacy, your memes drop off too.” Or perhaps more accurately, the memes are done with you.

As candidates are whittled down to eventual nominees, memes have turned away from the absurd; perhaps the internet finds the prospect of a Trump presidency more scary than funny. The fight between Sanders and Clinton grows more serious, and Levinson predicts memes will reflect this shift.

“Now that it’s down to the final candidates, it feels like it’s going to be a very ugly election online—there is a very ugly set of memes to come,” he said.

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