It’s once again a presidential election year in the US, and even just a few weeks into 2024, we’re already being inundated with breathless horserace updates and primary results and polls. Jon Stewart’s even coming back to the “Daily Show” on Mondays to get in on the action.
But with TV audiences dwindling and an increasing number of Americans getting their news primarily, or exclusively, from online sources and even social media, political campaigns face new challenges in reaching them. You can only press the flesh with so many people in diners and county fairs, and the US now has a population of over 342 million people. Clearly, some kind of broadcast component is required.
As a secondary challenge, Americans trust politicians and the mainstream media less now than at any other point in recent history. According to data from Pew, just 2-in-10 Americans say they trust the government in Washington “always” or “most of the time,” the lowest numbers in seven decades of polling.
The press doesn’t fare much better. Gallup data from 2022 shows that just 7% of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media. 38% said they have no trust at all in newspapers, TV, or the radio.
Increasingly, political action committees (PACs), nonprofits, and political campaigns are looking to influencers to make up this ground, particularly among the younger voters who spend the most time on streaming platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, and social media apps.
Last year, when Congressional Republicans were threatening to shut down the government in hopes of defunding social welfare programs, left-wing non-profit Courage for America organized its first-ever campaign centered around social media influencers, sending a group of creators to get a petition signed, then flying them to Washington to hand-deliver it to then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Just this week, The Information reported that President Biden’s re-election campaign has hired “directors of digital partnerships” to work specifically with influencers on messaging campaigns. Rob Flaherty, who’s leading the President’s digital outreach efforts, has been granted the title of “Assistant to the President,” a rank commensurate with communications director and press secretary. Throughout the year, an army of unpaid, independent content creators will get ongoing access to Biden and the White House, to then share on Instagram and TikTok.
President Biden’s 2020 campaign also leaned heavily on influencers as its strategy for reaching young voters. Biden’s 2020 campaign brought in the Village Marketing agency, which focuses its efforts on influencers, specifically to court these voters. He went on to win among voters under 29 by a 26-point margin.
While Donald Trump certainly also had his online supporters in 2020 – and started the race out with a huge advantage over President Biden on that front – the campaign’s approach was considerably different. Trump’s strategy largely relied on a network of conservative media figures and meme-makers to spread the messaging themselves, while the candidate focused on rallies, TV appearances, and more big-picture-type campaigning. Biden, on the other hand, took a more personal approach, sitting down for chats and discussions with influencers to talk about the issues that concerned them and their audiences specifically. That trend seems set to continue in this campaign cycle.
For the most part, though, the landscape since 2020 has shifted considerably. Political campaigns are savvier about using influencer marketing than ever before, and have now had time to build up vast networks of what Semafor calls “information spokespeople” who can break down the party line to younger voters and supporters who aren’t reachable through TV ads. Ory Rinat, a former digital staffer for the Trump administration, founded Urban Legend in 2020, which runs a network of 700 influencers who are compensated every time they engage followers with a particular political campaign (by signing up for a newsletter, making a donation, or so on.)
But despite this strong level of preparation, there are going to be new challenges in 2024 as well. While many, if not MOST influencers once shied away from politics entirely for fear of alienating potential fans, a tumultuous era in the US and globally has forced the issue. That means that more creators may be willing to engage with politicians and their campaigns on the issues of the day, but not necessarily in an entirely positive or approving way that will actually help them to secure votes. Kahlil Greene, TikTok’s “Gen Z Historian,” has been to the White House on several occasions and spoken to his followers about work the administration has been doing on a host of issues. But he told CNN in December that the White House is too “heavy-handed” at giving out talking points, which he believed does more harm than good.
To that end, the war in Gaza has become a particular problem for the Biden administration with younger voters. Americans in general broadly disapprove of the President’s handling of the conflict, but the numbers are most stark among younger voters. TikTok star George Lee Jr. (aka Conscious Lee) cited Biden’s support for the Gaza war and his inability to push through his proposed cancellation of student loan debts as his biggest ongoing problems with young voters.
Even if the Biden administration wanted a creator to speak about economic issues, or financial issues, or something totally disconnected from the war in Gaza and Biden’s unquestioned support of Israel’s government, for many, the “Genocide Joe” moniker makes the entire administration toxic.
Rather than using their platforms to boost candidates with whom they feel a certain affinity, some influencers are eliminating the middle man and simply running for office themselves. 26-year-old Democrat Cheyenne Hunt is currently campaigning to represent California’s 45th District in Congress, which would make her the legislative body’s 2nd Gen Z member, after New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has around 94,000 followers on TikTok.
25-year-old Isaiah Martin, who has around 98,000 followers, is running to fill Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s Congressional seat in Texas. And former Miss Texas Averie Bishop is hoping her 836,000 TikTok followers help her win a seat in the state’s House of Representatives.
Ultimately, as with all other influencer marketing efforts, it’s going to come down to authenticity. If a creator’s fanbase feels like they’re being advertised to, or the messaging is insincere or financially motivated, it’s just not going to play, regardless of how many followers someone has. Republican entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy discovered this in the most expensive way possible this year. After a high-profile presidential campaign that included appearances from a number of creators, including boxer Jake Paul, he exited the race following the Iowa Caucuses, having drawn less than 8% of the votes there.
This video may have received a lot of attention, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to anything young voters care about, or even feel like Paul has truly engaged with what Ramaswamy thinks and would do as president. Influencers are good at grabbing attention, sure, but the follow-up message also matters.