President Joe Biden is facing a major deficit with young voters. And if one were to take a glance at the platform where they congregate, you can see reasons why.
The Democratic National Committee took the dive into TikTok four months ago, and officials are so far happy with the results. But while the committee is pushing out its party’s leader to the millions upon millions of young users who congregate on TikTok, Biden hasn’t necessarily been the party’s most viral messenger.
Of the DNC’s top 10 most viewed TikTok videos, only one features the president speaking directly to camera or offering comments. The video, which has garnered more than 365,000 views since it was posted in late March, showcased the president discussing a new minimum income tax for billionaires that he included in his budget proposal for fiscal 2023.
Some of the DNC’s other most viewed TikTok videos feature Democratic figures, such as Hillary Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Rep. Katie Porter of California. When Biden did appear in a more viewed and liked TikTok clip, it often centered on other subjects or individuals. One such video, for example, celebrated the historic first of having a woman vice president and woman speaker of the House behind the president at the State of the Union, while another focused on Ketanji Brown Jackson being nominated for the Supreme Court.
Only three of 13 videos featuring remarks from Biden on the DNC’s TikTok channel have surpassed 100,000 views. The videos include the one on the minimum income tax for billionaires, another on his support for the trans community, and one awarding soccer player Megan Rapinoe the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At least seven videos featuring Harris speaking have surpassed 100,000 views.
Biden, meanwhile, was the focus of three of the 10 least watched videos shared on the DNC’s TikTok. They came from remarks Biden gave on infrastructure, the elementary school shooting in Uvalde and the Republican Party’s “decades-long assault on abortion rights.”
Top Democrats downplay the numbers, arguing the president’s actions and agenda have been largely popular across social media platforms. More than 70 of Biden’s posts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have been in the top five political posts of the day this year, according to engagement data shared by the DNC.
The president, moreover, has never touted himself as the candidate of the Gen Z crowd and his social media team has been reluctant to push him onto platforms that cater to such an audience. The White House does not have a TikTok account. And intel officials have warned that the platform’s Chinese ownership represents security complications.
But digital organizers and youth activists say Democrats — and the White House specifically — would be wise to recognize which voices and messages are resonating on the continuously-growing platform and adjust accordingly.
“People are looking for genuine personalities and people who they think are authentic. That’s a throughline we see between figures like Katie Porter, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke… People know them and what they’re fighting for,” said Ellen Sciales, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group. “It’s the progressive message from them that’s resonating. And they’re actually reaching young people by being authentic and genuine and no bullshit.”
The DNC’s decision to launch a TikTok channel in March was an attempt to give the president and party more of a footprint in that community. The committee’s TikTok channel has amassed more than 108,000 followers with 120 videos posted so far.
Some of those faces being featured by the DNC, aside from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, include Porter, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Rep. Barbara Lee of California and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, now a Texas gubernatorial candidate.
Porter and O’Rourke already had an established TikTok presence. The California Democrat’s account has almost 290,000 followers, while the Texas gubernatorial candidate has more than 245,000.
The DNC, for its part, is still in the early stages of testing out which kinds of videos work best for the platform. So far, the committee has seen success with TikTok videos that fall into three pillars: Contrasts between Democrats and Republicans, highlights of the historic composition of the Biden administration and news of the day, according to a DNC digital aide.
The DNC pushed back on the characterization that the president has been unpopular on the committee’s TikTok account.
“President Biden, his agenda, and highlighting Republican extremism are not only popular on TikTok but across all our social media platforms, with content featuring President Biden racking up tens of millions of views,” said Shelby Cole, DNC’s deputy chief mobilization officer for digital content and creative. “Our most-viewed TikTok highlights President Biden’s plan to cap the cost of insulin and the Republicans who voted against it, and three of our most-viewed TikToks prominently feature President Biden and his administration.”
But some metrics suggest that other Democratic leaders and figures have a larger audience reach on the platform. On the day the Supreme Court voted to overturn abortion rights, for example, videos posted by the DNC of Schumer and Warren outperformed one of Biden. The clip of Schumer speaking on the Senate floor was viewed 845,000 times, garnered over 183,000 likes and more than 4,700 shares. The one of Warren has more than 83,000 views, over 15,000 likes and more than 270 shares, while the clip of Biden comments has more than 18,000 views, over 2,100 likes and 30 shares. The following day, videos shared of remarks by Harris and Warren also received dramatically more shares and likes than the president’s video.
Biden is facing major deficits with the types of voters who would congregate on TikTok. In a survey released by the New York Times last week, 94 percent of Democrats under the age of 30 said they’d prefer if someone else was the party’s presidential nominee.
Annie Wu, a digital organizer in Pennsylvania, said one issue that could be impacting Democrats is that they were late to platforms like TikTok.
“They’re utilizing TikTok now and it’s mid-2022. It looks like they’ve caught onto the trend finally and… that comes off as less authentic,” said Wu, who previously worked as a marketing and communications director for nonprofit Gen-Z for Change. “Them utilizing the platform now is still helpful. However, it doesn’t show that they’re as forward-thinking in how they’re engaging young people.”
Wu added that it’s not a bad thing for the party to lean on Democrats who already have an established brand with younger voters.
“With Katie Porter, with Elizabeth Warren, with Beto, in general in their communications strategy, they’ve been out. They’re in selfie lines. They’re getting on live videos and talking about issues,” Wu said. “Politicians like that have built that brand around them and their policies and politics — that’s why they also resonate on an app like TikTok.”
But digital organizers and youth activists using TikTok caution that the party shouldn’t fixate on getting Biden on the platform more as a way to court young voters. Instead, they say, it’s more what Biden and Democrats are getting done that matters.
“I don’t think the problem Biden is having is that he’s not on TikTok, it’s more that young people are feeling super in despair about this moment,” Sciales said. “It’s because of all the Supreme Court rulings. They haven’t seen any significant climate legislation come through. They haven’t seen student loans be canceled in a big way. That needs to be addressed first.”
Eugene Daniels contributed to this report.