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Democrats consider how TikTok may fit into their 2024 campaign strategy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A lot of politicians in the United States do not like TikTok. A lot of their voters do. More than 150 million people are on TikTok in the U.S., and so Democrats are considering how this app and its popularity with young Americans fits into their campaign strategy. NPR's Elena Moore reports.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: When North Carolina Congressman Jeff Jackson goes back to his district, everyone wants to talk about it.

JEFF JACKSON: It's the No. 1 thing that I hear from my constituents when I'm home.

MOORE: That thing - his TikToks.

JACKSON: They come up to me in Walmart, on the sidewalk, when I'm at the park with my kids, and they say, hey, I really like your video on this.

MOORE: Every week or so, he posts an explainer video talking about the latest news on Capitol Hill and how he feels about it as a first-term member of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JACKSON: So I've been in Congress for less than a year, and this is definitely the biggest mess I've seen so far.

And I don't know if I'm not supposed to say this out loud, but it's true and important, and if you don't know this...

Now you know everything I know about this, and I'll keep you posted.

MOORE: And he's gone viral, racking up over 2 million followers, which is the most of any lawmaker on Capitol Hill. That could help Jackson in his new bid for state attorney general. And while he may be one of the first politicians to achieve an influencer-level following on TikTok, his Democratic colleagues in Congress are still figuring out how to make a good impression there. By NPR's count, less than half a percent of Congress has an active TikTok account, and among those who do, they're all Democrats. So what's worked so far? Digital strategists say it's all about pushing away from traditional political norms.

ANNIE WU: Not just repurposing our ads, not just taking a tweet and sharing it there.

MOORE: That's Annie Wu, who helped run Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman's social media during his 2022 campaign. She says there's no one way to have an effective TikTok account, but you do have to fit the style.

WU: Making content in a way that people like to consume content on that platform, which is engaging and entertaining and things that people aren't just going to comment vote on. They're going to actually say, this made me laugh, or this taught me something, or I want to send this to five of my friends because I actually think they're going to enjoy it and not just feel like they're being fed talking points.

MOORE: Wu ran Fetterman's TikTok account leading up to the election. It featured a mix of comedic videos adopting trends of the time. In one video, Fetterman outlined some of his platform, while the viral "It's Corn" song plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S CORN")

TARIQ AND THE GREGORY BROTHERS: (Singing) It's corn, a big lump with knobs. It has the juice.

MOORE: There were also more sincere posts where he speaks directly to the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FETTERMAN: But I want to be really serious for a moment right now, because election isn't a joke. Abortion rights, voting rights are so much more at the ballot.

MOORE: Now, as other Democrats in Congress experiment with different TikTok styles, some new candidates only know a political playing field that includes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHEYENNE HUNT: My name is Cheyenne Hunt. I'm running to become the first Gen Z woman ever elected to Congress.

MOORE: Hunt is 26 years old. She's challenging vulnerable Republican Michelle Steel in Orange County, Calif. But before choosing to run, she built up a following on TikTok talking about politics and spotlighting her life as an attorney. Now she's got over 91,000 followers, and with around a year until election season, the account is part of her campaign strategy.

HUNT: To be able to have conversations with people there, I think is a critically important skill, and if it's a tool in our tool belt, then I'm absolutely going to use it.

MOORE: Hunt is one of a few different TikTokkers who are trying to go from political influencer online to aspiring politician in real life.

Elena Moore, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.
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