In search of a younger audience, New Jersey politics heads to TikTok

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It became a truism at this point that Barack Obama was the “first president of social media.” In both his 2008 campaign and the presidency that followed, Obama and his communications team revolutionized the way politicians use social media, recognizing it as an entirely new way to reach voters, raise funds and to broadcast messages.

Fourteen years and a social media-dominated Trump presidency later, much of what Obama revolutionized has become the norm in politics. Political events are published on Facebook before any other place. Many voters find out about their elected officials from their social media feeds rather than in-person media or campaigns. It is now much stranger when a politician doesn’t have a Twitter account only when they have one.

But even as campaign social media has grown from curiosity to ubiquity, some newer platforms are still cutting edge, including TikTok, a video-oriented app that many older Americans, even those who are familiar with other social networks. media, find impenetrable.

In contrast to the stilted 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 34, according to a study — and not always politically engaged, which means campaigns in New Jersey and across the country have the opportunity to reach a different audience than they’re used to.

“So much ink has been spilled on how to reach young voters,” said Jackie Burns, the campaign manager for Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s (D-Montclair) re-election campaign. “Using TikTok in political campaigns is another step in this process of reaching young people where they are and trying to find ways to reach young voters who don’t watch TV shows – who are at the phone, which are on platforms like TikTok.

To that end, Sherrill’s campaign student volunteers have launched the TikTok students4mikie this summer. Derived from a similar Instagram account that has been around since the 2020 election, the TikTok account posts short clips praising Sherrill and pleading with viewers to vote, often via memes or pop culture.

A recent videofor example, quotation marks Friends‘ Phoebe Buffay while urging people to apply for mail-in ballots: ‘Boys and girlfriends will come and go, but that’s for life!’

Students4mikie is not alone; the account is one of at least seven active TikToks run by the campaigns of congressmen or congressional candidates from major parties in New Jersey.

The type of content in each account varies widely. Some politicians, such as Democratic candidates for Congress Tim Alexander and Matt Jenkins, largely post never-before-seen videos of themselves talking about key issues. Others, like the Republican candidates Frank Pallotta and Billy Prempehare more platform savvy and mix straight politics with funnier videos that fit the music-centric language of the app.

Rep. Tom Malinowski’s (D-Ringoes) account has been released only one TikTok since its inception over the summer, but it’s one of the best in the world: the congressman sitting in his office, “trying to get to Congress”, as viral cartoon man in pajamas named Horace dances on his desk.

But by far the most successful story is that of US Senator Cory Booker. In keeping with Booker’s staunchly serious persona on other platforms and in person, Booker’s TikTok posts one video a day of the senator speaking inspiringly about life, something that Booker’s chief digital officer, Michael Dickens, says , began as a New Year’s resolution.

“Videos have become routine: After his daily run or workout, he pulls out his phone and records a video,” Dickens said. “They reflect his personality and consistent message for manifesting our power through our daily actions, whether it’s performing a small act of service, being kind to ourselves, or persevering toward our goals.”

Dickens added that he’s generally found a happier audience on TikTok than on other platforms, where Booker also posts his daily videos.

“There is more positivity on TikTok and fewer automated or reflexive responses than on Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “People who follow him want to see his videos, they seek his message of kindness, empathy and service, even if they don’t agree with him politically.”

Booker’s most popular videos have garnered over 500,000 views — orders of magnitude higher than other New Jersey accounts, which typically get between 50 and 5,000 views on each video.

State-level politicians have also gotten into the TikTok game. The state of New Jersey, of course, has an accountalthough ironically he is less irreverent than the state’s now famous Twitter account. So also the State Senate Democrats and the Assembly Republicanseach vying to make their caucus cooler than the other.

Todd Riffle, communications director for the Assembly GOP, said the account started as a kind of experiment, but has since become a bigger part of his office’s social media outreach.

“It’s just pure experimentation on our part, to see what works,” he said. “We realize 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 completely new way like we would in a press release.”

In a recent video, the Assembly GOP directly mocked Senate Democrats; after Senate Democrats count posted a TikTok of every Democratic senator waving at the camera, the Assembly GOP took the video and compared the senators to cartoon and sitcom characters.

TikTok has its flaws as a political platform. For one thing, the potential for fundraising and getting votes is limited, as most viewers probably won’t be interested in donating money through TikTok and many don’t live near New Jersey. On the other hand, there is genuine national security concerns with the Chinese-owned application that have not yet been resolved.

And crucially, there’s no guarantee that TikTok won’t be one of many social media platforms that peaked and crashed; there aren’t many political campaigns left with active MySpace accounts today.

But for now, with much of Millennials and American Zoomers using the platform, politicians and campaigns that neglect TikTok may be missing an important tool for reaching new audiences.

“Campaigning is about being creative and finding creative ways to reach voters,” Burns said. “There is a whole cohort of young [where] it’s a native platform for them.

“It’s a little less serious and it’s supposed to be a little more fun, but there’s definitely still a market for real news content,” Riffle said. “It won’t be all about the latest dance craze.”

This story was updated at 10:21 a.m. with a correction: The information about Booker}’s presence on TikTok comes from digital director Michael Dickens, not publicist Minjae Park.

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