It’s become a truism at this point that Barack Obama was the “first social media president.” Both in his 2008 campaign and in the presidency that followed, Obama and his communications team upended the way politicians use social media, recognizing it as an entirely new way to reach voters, raise money, and spread messages.
Fourteen years and one social media-dominated Trump presidency later, much of what Obama revolutionized has become standard in politics. Political events are posted to Facebook before anywhere else. Many voters learn about their elected officials from their social media feeds rather than news outlets or in-person campaigning. It’s now far weirder when a politician doesn’t have a Twitter account than when they do.
But even as campaign social media has turned from a curiosity to a ubiquity, some newer platforms are still on the cutting edge – most prominently TikTok, a video-oriented app that many older Americans, even those who may be well-versed in other social media, find inscrutable.
Contrasting with the staid posts of Facebook or the carefully curated images of Instagram, TikTok emphasizes short, simple videos, often set to background music and accompanied by overlaid text. Its audience is young – 70% of users are under the age of 34, according to one study – and not always politically engaged, meaning that campaigns in New Jersey and around the country have an opportunity to reach a different sort of audience than they may be used to.
“So much ink has been spilled about how to reach young voters,” said Jackie Burns, the campaign manager for Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair)’s re-election campaign. “The use of TikTok on political campaigns is another leg in that process of reaching young people where they are and trying to come up with ways that you can reach youth voters who aren’t watching broadcast televisions – who are on their phones, who are on platforms like TikTok.”
To that end, student volunteers on Sherrill’s campaign started the TikTok students4mikie this summer. Branching out from a similar Instagram account that’s been around since the 2020 election, the TikTok account posts short clips praising Sherrill and imploring viewers to vote, often via memes or pop culture.
One recent video, for example, quotes Friends’ Phoebe Buffay while urging people to apply for absentee ballots: “Boyfriends and girlfriends are gonna come and go, but this is for life!”
Students4mikie isn’t alone; the account is one of at least seven active TikToks run by the campaigns of members of Congress or major-party congressional candidates in New Jersey.
The type of content on each account varies widely. Some politicians, like Democratic congressional candidates Tim Alexander and Matt Jenkins, largely post unedited videos of themselves talking about key issues. Others, like Republican candidates Frank Pallotta and Billy Prempeh, are more savvy to the platform and mix up direct politics with funnier videos that fit the app’s music-centered language.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes)’s account has posted just one TikTok since being created over the summer, but it’s one of the best anywhere: the congressman sitting in his office, “trying to Congress,” as a viral pajama-clad cartoon man named Horace dances on his desk.
But by far the most successful account is U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s. In keeping with Booker’s unabashedly earnest persona on other platforms and in person, Booker’s TikTok posts one video a day of the senator talking inspirationally about life, something that Booker digital director Michael Dickens said began as a New Year’s resolution.
“The videos have become a routine: after his daily run or workout, he’ll pull out his phone and record a video,” Dickens said. “They reflect his personality and his consistent message to manifest our power through our daily actions, whether it’s performing a small act of service, being kind to ourselves, or persevering towards our goals.”
Dickens added that he has generally encountered a more cheerful audience on TikTok than on other platforms, where Booker also posts his daily videos.
“There’s more positivity on TikTok and less automated or reflexive responses than Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “People who follow him want to see his videos, they’re seeking out his message of kindness, empathy, and service, even if they don’t agree with him politically.”
Booker’s most popular videos have gotten upwards of 500,000 views – orders of magnitude higher than other New Jersey accounts, which are typically logging between 50 and 5,000 views on each video.
State-level politicians have also gotten in on the TikTok game. The state of New Jersey, of course, has an account, though ironically it’s less irreverent than the state’s now-famous Twitter account. So too do the State Senate Democrats and the Assembly Republicans, each vying to make their caucuses look cooler than the other.
Todd Riffle, the Assembly GOP’s communications director, said that the account began as something of an experiment, but has since grown into a more significant component of his office’s social media outreach.
“It’s just pure experimentation on our part, seeing what works,” he said. “We’re realizing that people want to talk about the issues we’re looking at, but sometimes they want to do it in a fun way, and not necessarily in a full newsy way that we would do in a press release.”
In one recent video, the Assembly GOP directly poked fun at the Senate Democrats; after the Senate Dems account posted a TikTok of each Democratic senator waving at the camera, the Assembly GOP took the video and compared the senators to cartoon and sitcom characters.
TikTok does come with its flaws as a political platform. For one, the potential for fundraising and vote-getting is limited, since most viewers likely won’t be interested in giving money via TikTok and many don’t live anywhere near New Jersey. For another, there are genuine national security concerns with the Chinese-owned app that have yet to be resolved.
And most importantly, there’s no guarantee TikTok will not be one of the many social media platforms that has peaked and crashed; there aren’t many political campaigns with active MySpace accounts left today.
But for now, with a huge portion of America’s millennials and Zoomers using the platform, politicians and campaigns that neglect TikTok may be missing out on an important tool to reach new audiences.
“Campaigns are all about being creative and finding creative ways to reach voters,” Burns said. “There’s a whole cohort of young people [where] this is a native platform for them.”
“It’s a little less serious and it’s meant to be a little more fun, but there is definitely still a market out there for real news content,” Riffle said. “It’s not all going to be about the latest dance craze.”
This story was updated at 10:21 a.m. with a correction: information about Booker}s TikTok presence came from digital director Michael Dickens, not press secretary Minjae Park.