HARRISBURG, Pa. — In one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races this year, the big moments aren’t happening on the campaign trail. They are deployed in social networks.
For one stunt, Democrat John Fetterman of Pennsylvania launched an online petition to have his Republican rival, famed heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, enshrined in the New Jersey Hall of Fame — a nod to Oz, who moved from his longtime home in New Jersey to run in nearby Pennsylvania.
Second, Fetterman paid $2,000 for a plane to fly a banner over weekend beachgoers at the Jersey Shore, welcoming Oz home to the Garden State. And in particularly viral messages, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, star of MTV’s infamous “Jersey Shore,” and “Little” Steven Van Zandt of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band recorded videos telling Oz to come home.
“Nobody wants to see you embarrassed,” Van Zandt says. “So go back to Jersey, where you belong.”
For a company that could eventually be worth more than $100 million, the stunts are a cheap way for Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, to get attention. Millions of views are good for the candidate, who has been largely sidelined from public appearances since suffering a stroke in May.
And it’s more than a laugh: a social media strategy can prove powerful in defining Oz as a doom, cut off from the state’s people and culture.
“The reason it stands out is because he seems to be doing a better job this election cycle of contrasting his personality with his opponent’s,” said Dante Atkins, a Washington Democratic campaign strategist who did not work for Fetterman. .
Republicans admit Fetterman’s social media game is top-notch. But they question the value. Even at a time when most Americans are on social media, many Pennsylvania voters on social media don’t see Fetterman’s stuff, and anyway, elections aren’t about who has the best troll game, they say.
Republicans also argue that Fetterman’s greatest hits miss the issues voters most often 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 don’t care what I stand for.”
Much of the material comes from Fetterman himself, said company spokesman Joe Calvella. He does a lot of posting on Twitter, and when Fetterman isn’t posting them himself, he’s helping generate ideas.
He would shoot text messages to campaign staff saying, ‘Hey, what’s up with this,’ or ‘Did you see this,'” Calvella said. “He’s still very involved.”
Other materials come from campaign staff who develop ideas that stay on Fetterman’s brand and the candidate’s contested territory, Calvella said. This includes accusing oil companies of driving up gas prices.
The concept of trolling Oz and many of the memes also came from Fetterman, Calvello said. The idea for Snooki’s video was brainstormed by several employees, Calvella said.
The company’s staff wrote a script, and Snooki — who was paid less than $400 through video-sharing website Cameo — included a portion of it in the ad, but didn’t get in on the joke until afterward.
With 3.2 million views, it earned Fetterman’s most Twitter accounts in history, “and that’s a high bar,” Calvella said.
Van Zandt shot his video for free and posted his script after the company contacted him directly to see if he would cooperate, Calvella said.
It’s hard to see how much that will help Fetterman in a year when Democrats face tough political challenges, including high inflation and traditional midterm backlash against the president’s party.
It has been difficult for political scientists to isolate the forces that influence how voters decide, said Christopher Borick, an assistant professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Also, voters tend to be older than the average social media user, Boryk said.
Still, the Pew Research Center estimated last year that seven out of 10 Americans use social media, and it’s undeniable that the medium is becoming increasingly important in reaching voters.
“The proof of the pudding is that companies are turning to it more and more, and so they believe it’s a necessary and key component,” Boryk said.
Maggie McDonald, a graduate student at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics who studies social media in congressional campaigns, said Fetterman’s social media game is one of the best, if not the best, she’s seen.
“I imagine people will be trying to emulate that in the years to come,” MacDonald said.
In addition to making people laugh, she said Fetterman’s stunts could motivate appreciative viewers to contribute money to his campaign and encourage apathetic Democrats to get off the curb and vote for him.
Oz tried to harness the power of social media for his campaign and tried to respond to Fetterman online. He drew particular attention to Fetterman’s absence from a traditional retail campaign following his stroke, including using a meme from the series Lost.
In response to Fetterman’s tweet about high gas prices, Oz responded, “I wonder why you have to fill up the tank so often when you’re not at a campaign meeting with the people of Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman responded, “Dude, 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 gas.”
Fetterman’s campaign says its trolling of Oz is relevant to issues that matter to voters. Some of its elements — such as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” parody video — attempt to question whether a nine-figure man can advocate for ordinary people suffering from high gas prices.
Besides pitting himself against Oz, Fetterman is well-versed in internet culture.
“He’s extremely online, he knows his memes, he knows his internet subcultures, his company knows how to make things go viral and destroy his opponent with online owners,” Atkins said.
Don’t expect the posts to stop anytime soon.
Now, Fetterman says he will put up a billboard on the Betsy Ross Bridge, which connects the states across the Delaware River, reminding motorists that they are leaving New Jersey for Pennsylvania “just like Dr. Oz.”