The Slatest

What Does Gen Z Think About Democrats’ Foray Into TikTok?

Politicians have entered the chat—or the “For You” page, as it were.

Ed Markey, Tim Ryan, and Bernie Sanders using TikTok.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by tiktok.com/@bernie, tiktok.com/@ed_markey, and tiktok.com/@reptimryan.

Politicians have entered the chat—or the “For You” page, as it were. From all levels of government, candidates and their campaigns have taken to TikTok in an attempt to reach young voters. Some are keeping it straightforward, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose TikTok almost exclusively features totally standard clips of the 81-year-old talking about his political goals: raising the federal minimum wage, establishing Medicare for all, and policing the never-ending sins of corporate America.

But others, like Ohio House Rep. Tim Ryan, 49, who is in a tight race for his state’s Senate seat against MAGA-convert J.D. Vance, haven’t shied away from participating in the song and dance trends that define TikTok culture. Which is why you can watch Ryan shimmying to the 2010 club hit “Pretty Boy Swag” as he explains to users who exactly he is. Ryan might have a deeper respect for the platform than most, thanks to his success on it—one of Ryan’s most viewed TikToks is from 2021, when his team posted a clip of him speaking to Congress. He’s visibly heated and speaking to his Republican colleagues about their lack of support for labor laws, in reference to the PRO Act, a bill intended to expand labor protections that passed the House in 2021, but not the Senate, and remains stalled today. In Ryan’s words, “Heaven forbid we pass something that’s gonna help the damn workers in the United States of America.”

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It’s been viewed 2.4 million times. Thousands of TikTok users left comments applauding Ryan’s gusto. One guy asked, “Who is this guy???? I need to know who to support!!!!” Obviously, Ryan’s campaign has been trying to replicate that magic since.

The question is: How scalable is any of this? And are the politicians on TikTok changing any minds, or recruiting any new voters?

The app has about 80 million monthly active users in the U.S., most of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24, a crucial voting bloc that many politicians are trying to reach. Ostensibly, it should be possible to reach them on the app: Users spend, on average, 95 minutes per day on TikTok, and over 26 percent of adults under 30 say that TikTok is where they get their news.

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But as my colleague Nitish Pahwa put it recently, the overall picture for youth midterms turnout remains grim: Only 14 percent of voters under 30 say they will definitely go out to the polls. It’s not clear that TikTok will push that up, either. The forum isn’t really like the social media platforms—namely Facebook and Twitter—that have previously helped politicians gain big cultural followings (i.e., the Obama campaign).

To find out what Gen Z thinks of politicians on TikTok, I decided to just talk to a couple of them. Eighteen-year-old college student Abdulmajid Yusuf, a political science major at the University of Illinois–Chicago (UIC), told me that he’s come across content for New York House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is famous for her use of social media, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. He recognized that these politicians are trying to engage his generation and was open to it, acknowledging people his age aren’t known for turning out to vote.

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But whether or not the political messaging resonates is another question. “It depends on if I’m specifically in that mood for that type of content. If I don’t—if I feel like it’s something I’ve seen before in other places, I just skip it,” Yusuf told me.

On the flip side, Michelle Zhou, a senior at UIC, told me that even though she considers herself politically invested, she hasn’t come across any politicians’ TikToks when using the app. She said she identifies with the Democratic Party but also doesn’t find them particularly trustworthy—even though she agrees with their policies over conservatives’. (Perhaps her perspective points to an opening for Democrats to launch their elevator pitch, or TikTok dance.)

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Ultimately, politicians who want young voters may have no choice but to try. Which is why we’re getting—checks notes—unsolicited “Teenage Dirtbag” montages of 76-year-old Sen. Ed Markey from the Massachusetts politician’s account.

Alternatively, politicians could just choose to attack TikTok the way Sen. Marco Rubio has: Instead of joining the platform himself, he has simply commissioned a number of ads that take aim at his opponent, Rep. Val Demings, for using the app despite national security concerns. It doesn’t seem likely to scare away the young voters these politicians are so eager to court, though.

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