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Despite a blanket of snow and single digit temperatures, dozens of volunteers met in Omaha two weeks ago to canvas for mayoral candidate Mark Gudgel. Dressed in heavy coats and face masks labelled “Gudgel for Mayor,” they knocked on doors and collected signatures for an election that’s nearly two months away.
How did a school teacher who’s never held elected office generate this much hype so quickly? Twitch, apparently.
Steven Bonnell, a Twitch streamer and political commentator, organized the event for Gudgel. Under the pseudonym “Destiny,” Bonnell has over 630,000 followers on Twitch.
Twitch, one of the most popular live streaming platforms, experienced a huge boost in traffic last year at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., and politicians have noticed. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hosted a game of Among Us with several of the platform’s biggest streamers in October to get out the vote.
Social media offers an accessible way to reach potential voters, but few have taken full advantage of it yet. After Ocasio-Cortez realized she could take her real life influence to Twitch, Bonnell realized he could take his Twitch influence to real life.
“I spend a lot of time online screaming about politics constantly,” Bonnell said. “I just thought it’d be cool to make an actual difference somewhere that was a little bit more than just shouting at people online.”
Bonnell grew up in Omaha and went to UNO to study music. He said he dropped out because he struggled to balance school and work. By 2011, Bonnell was able to pursue streaming games like Starcraft II full-time.
Although the platform is mostly known for video game content, Bonnell gained notoriety in 2016 when he started engaging in political debates during his streams.
The notoriously toxic gaming community has at times been populated by far-right political activists, who seem to be naturally attracted to the edgy humor and harsh rhetoric. But Bonnell, who used to lean to the right himself, uses his edginess to promote progressive politics.
“I’ve always been very edgy – I grew up on the internet, and that’s just how we were on the internet,” Bonnell said. “That kind of uniquely equipped me to deal with a lot of the conservative people online, ‘cause they kinda have, like, a monopoly on that market.”
Bonnell got his start in canvassing this January. After congressional Democrats underperformed in the 2020 elections, he knew that the runoff elections in Georgia would be crucial.
“It’s hard to find political campaign strategies for, like, what wins elections. There’s so much conflicting information and nobody seems to agree on what is actually the best thing to do,” Bonnell said. “But I felt like I read consistently over and over again that Republicans’ ground game was way, way, way stronger than Democrats’ ground game over the pandemic era.”
Bonnell said it seemed like there was disproportionately high turnout in the county he volunteered in, “so it felt like we made a difference.”
After success in Georgia, Bonnell started looking for other places to get involved. He said Omaha, his hometown and where his son is growing up, would be “a really good place to start.”
“There was a friend that I had that lived in Omaha that was kind of inspired to take a more active role in political stuff,” Bonnell said. “And he linked up with Mark Gudgel and works as one of his, I think, economic policy advisors … I’ve known this guy for quite a while, I was at his brother’s wedding, so I decided to chat more about the candidate he was supporting.”
After researching the other Democratic candidates, Bonnell decided he wanted to help organize for Gudgel. He knew R.J. Neary might be seen as a favorite because of his business experience, but Bonnell thinks Omaha wants someone more exciting.
“I think that Omaha particularly could, probably, have a fairly progressive mayor, I mean the district went blue for Biden,” Bonnell said. “I don’t think you have to be quite as cautious there about having a more establishment, moderate Dem.”
On Jan. 23, Bonnell interviewed Gudgel during a live stream. Gudgel answered questions from Bonnell’s viewers, submitted via Reddit. They were eager to get started, because they believed that the first impression is especially important for local races.
Bonnell said that he also organized a “permanent presence,” with 13 volunteers living in Omaha until the election. They’re planning future events, with the next canvassing effort coming this weekend.
“When it comes to local level politics, there’s a surprising amount of power a very small amount of people can have,” Bonnell said. “There’s a lot of political power up for grabs. You just have to actually organize and go out and do it.”