HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — In one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races this year, the biggest moments aren’t on the campaign trail. They take place on social networks.
For a stunt, Democrat John Fetterman of Pennsylvania has launched an online petition to have his Republican rival, famed heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame – a nod to Oz leaving his longtime home in New Jersey to race in neighboring Pennsylvania.
For another, Fetterman paid $2,000 for a plane to carry a banner about weekend beachgoers to the Jersey Shore welcoming Oz home to the Garden State. And in particularly viral posts, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, star of the infamous MTV show “Jersey Shore,” and “Little” Steven Van Zandt of “The Sopranos” and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band recorded videos saying in Oz to come home.
“Nobody wants to see you embarrassed,” says Van Zandt. “So come back to Jersey where you belong.”
For a campaign that could ultimately cost more than $100 million, the stunts are cheap ways for Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, to grab attention. The millions of views come in handy for a contestant who was largely sidelined from personal appearances after suffering a stroke in May.
And it’s not just a joke: the social media strategy could prove effective in defining Oz as a porter out of touch with the residents and the culture of the state.
“The reason it stands out is that he seems to be doing the best job of anyone this election cycle of pitting his personality against that of his opponent,” said Dante Atkins, a Washington-based Democratic campaign strategist, DC, who did no work for Fetterman.
Republicans recognize that Fetterman’s social media game is top-notch. But they question the value. Even at a time when most Americans use social media, many Pennsylvania voters on social media don’t see Fetterman’s material, and elections aren’t about who has the best troll game anyway, say -they.
Republicans also argue that Fetterman’s greatest hits miss the issues voters are most likely to consider when making up their minds: inflation, gas prices and the economy, for example.
“People don’t really care where I’m from,” Oz said in an interview. “They care about what I stand for.”
Much of the material comes from Fetterman himself, campaign spokesman Joe Calvello said. He does a lot of Twitter posts and if Fetterman himself doesn’t post them, he helps come up with ideas.
He’ll text campaign staff saying, “‘Hey, what about that,’ or ‘did you see that,'” Calvello said. “He is always very involved.”
Other elements come from campaign staff developing ideas that stay on Fetterman’s brand and the territory the candidate has staked, Calvello said. This includes accusing oil companies of raising gas prices.
The trolling concept of Oz, and many memes, also came from Fetterman, Calvello said. The idea for the Snooki video came from a brainstorming of a few staff members, Calvello said.
Campaign staff wrote the script, and Snooki — who was paid less than $400 through video-sharing website Cameo — added some of it, but only got in on the joke afterwards.
With 3.2 million views, it scored the most Twitter engagement ever on Fetterman’s account, “and that’s a high bar,” Calvello said.
Van Zandt made his video for free and added his script after the campaign contacted him directly to see if he would cooperate, Calvello said.
It’s unclear how much that will help Fetterman in a year when Democrats face political headwinds, including high inflation and a traditional medium-term backlash against the president’s party.
Political scientists have struggled to isolate the forces that affect how voters decide, said Christopher Borick, assistant professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Additionally, voters tend to be older than the average social media user, Borick said.
Yet the Pew Research Center estimated last year that seven out of 10 Americans use social media, and there’s no denying that the medium is becoming increasingly important in reaching voters.
“The proof in the pudding is that campaigns have increasingly turned to it, and so they continue to believe it’s a necessary and key component,” Borick said.
Maggie McDonald, a post-doctoral fellow who studies social media in congressional campaigns at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, said Fetterman’s social media game is among the best, if not the best. best she has seen.
“I imagine in years to come people will try to emulate that,” McDonald said.
In addition to making people laugh, she said she thinks Fetterman’s stunts might motivate grateful viewers to contribute money to his campaign and cause apathetic Democrats to drop out to vote for him.
Oz attempted to harness the power of social media for his campaign and attempted to respond to Fetterman online. He particularly focused on Fetterman’s absence from mainstream retail campaigns following his stroke, including using a meme from the TV series “Lost.”
In response to a tweet from Fetterman about high gas prices, Oz shot back, “Curious why you have to fill up so often when you’re not campaigning to meet Pennsylvanians.”
Fetterman replied, “Man, you’re literally from Jersey,” before referring to a New Jersey state law that requires gas station attendants to pump gas for motorists. “I bet you don’t even know how to pump your own gasoline.”
Fetterman’s campaign argues that his trolling of Oz is on point with issues that matter to voters. Some elements of it — like a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” parody video — attempt to ask whether a nine-figure man can stand up for ordinary people who are pinched by high gas prices.
In addition to contrasting with Oz, Fetterman is well versed in internet culture.
“He’s extremely online, he knows his memes, he knows his internet subcultures, his campaign knows how to go viral and annihilate his opponent with online possessions,” Atkins said.
Don’t expect the messages to stop anytime soon.
Fetterman now says he will put up a billboard on the Betsy Ross Bridge connecting the states over the Delaware River, reminding motorists that they are leaving New Jersey for Pennsylvania “just like Dr. Oz.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.
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