The great conundrum of campaigning on TikTok

Cath Virginia / The Verge | Photo from Getty Images

Political strategists aren’t throwing away TikTok, even after their election candidates try to force its sale on national security grounds. Joe Biden faces the camera, casually dressed for a US president in khaki slacks and a quarter zip. He jovially answers a series of questions about the Super Bowl happening that day: Chiefs or Niners? Jason Kelce or Travis Kelce? And finally: Trump or Biden?
“Are you kidding? Biden,” the president says with a smile.
That video marked the presidential reelection campaigns’ debut on TikTok, the massively popular video app that’s captured the attention of 170 million Americans. As of April, the video has more than 10.5 million views.
Still, just weeks after that launch, Biden would pledge to sign a bill that could oust the app from the US unless it finds a way to separate from its Chinese parent company in six months once it takes effect. As of Saturday, that bill looks one step closer to becoming law, after it cleared the House a second time as part of a foreign aid package, making it more difficult for the Senate to ignore. The push comes from US policymakers’ fears that ByteDance, which owns TikTok, could be compelled by the Chinese government to hand over data on US users. TikTok has repeatedly said it does not store US user information in China.

While TikTok users might be surprised by the incongruity, campaign professionals have mostly shrugged off the cognitive dissonance. To them, what’s most important is being where their voters are. Even so, TikTok’s prohibition on political ads and relative newness to the election scene means it’s not yet indispensable for campaigns in the way that strongholds like Facebook are, after proving to be reliable for fundraising over several cycles.
But many strategists also still recognize opportunity — if limited — on the platform, for as long as it exists in its current form. Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and political strategist, who served as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager in his 2009 mayoral race, compared candidates’ attitudes toward the TikTok ban to how they might treat proposals to amend campaign finance laws.
“When you see proposals to change them, every member says, ‘Well, I’ll live by whatever the rules are, but I’m not going to unilaterally disarm until that happens,’” says Tusk. “So I think every campaign that is using TikTok … is going to use it until the day the platform goes away or changes hands or whatever happens, if anything. But I think that no one is going to preemptively not use TikTok.”
When policy conflicts with politics
Hypocrisy in politics is far from novel. But TikTok’s passionate user base has been particularly vocal about candidates who voted for the TikTok bill and yet embrace the platform.
Take North Carolina Rep. Jeff Jackson (D), who built a large following on TikTok discussing his thoughts on congressional news but rapidly lost 100,000 of them after his vote for the bill that would force TikTok’s divestment or else ban it.
“WITHOUT TIKTOK YOUR NOTHING!!!,” one TikToker commented at the time. His posts have been riddled with comments like a series of tomato emoji and “How much did they pay you to vote yes on the ban?” Some comments seem to suggest that Jackson’s vote was swayed by money from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as some lawmakers have pointed with concern to widespread pro-Palestinian messages on the app and suggested China could put its thumb on the scales of what messages American users see. After Jackson deleted his video explaining his vote rationale, one viewer commented on another video, “deleting it doesn’t make what u did go away how’s that aipac money?” (Jackson’s campaign received just $8,000 from AIPAC in the 2022 cycle, according to OpenSecrets, and he’s running for North Carolina attorney general, rather than reelection to Congress, this go around.)
Tusk said he’s not too worried — he thinks the loudest voices on TikTok are unlikely to be voters in the primaries anyway. Unless a candidate is truly in a swing district where the fight comes down to the general election, primary voters are really the ones congressional candidates are trying to reach, he said. “If I were that member of Congress, and I was getting all this shit from people on TikTok, my assumption would be it doesn’t matter in the slightest. It’s going to have no impact on my primary,” Tusk said.
“Even though, arguably, as a statement of principle, if you voted to effectively ban it, you should not be using it, I can’t imagine anybody’s doing that,” he added.
Rep. Jackson’s TikTok profile has three new videos since he voted on the divest-or-ban bill, including an apology video for deleting the video that was posted immediately after the bill passed the House.
“If campaigns see a benefit to it, I would be very surprised if they stopped using it based on political climate”
It’s also not the first time candidates have had to grapple with the message they could send by campaigning on a platform that they’re simultaneously attacking in policy spaces. When the Cambridge Analytica data scandal came to light in 2018, revealing that data from millions of Facebook profiles had been harvested without users’ consent by a political analytics firm, campaigns still relied heavily on the platform for their fundraising and messaging efforts. Although Facebook banned political advertising after the 2020 election, it lifted the ban only a year later, in time for the following election cycle. Some political advertisers shifted spend from the platform in the 2022 midterm elections, but many pointed to other reasons for the change, like new privacy policies on the iPhone that made it harder to target users.
“I don’t think there was a dent in political advertising [on Facebook] after Cambridge Analytica,” said Jon Jones, founder and CEO of advocacy firm Relation Agency, who served as the first digital strategist to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “As much discussion and debate that there was … I didn’t see any downtick in activity on the platforms for political campaigns.”
Just as with Facebook then, Jones said that when it comes to TikTok, “if campaigns see a benefit to it, I would be very surprised if they stopped using it based on political climate.”
“It’s a tough political reality,” said Eric Wilson, senior vice president at strategic advisory firm Bullpen Strategy Group, who led the digital team for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, “where good policy and good politics conflict.”
A partisan divide in incentives
The calculus can be different for different candidates — whether Republican or Democrat or political newcomer versus incumbent.
Incumbents, for instance, have an opportunity to grow TikTok audiences over time and leverage them during campaign season. But political newcomers may not find TikTok worthwhile, says Jones, the former Obama digital strategist. “If you don’t already have that TikTok audience built up, it is very hard to build one up in time to take advantage of it before Election Day.”
But more importantly, there’s a partisan divide on what candidates have to gain from TikTok. Some of this is obvious: TikTok’s user base skews young, and younger Americans tend to be more liberal. Republicans can still reliably reach their base by advertising on cable and Facebook.
“Facebook is still the 300, 500-pound gorilla in terms of audience,” says Tyler Brown, founder of digital public affairs firm Hadron Strategies, who previously worked as director of digital strategy at the Republican National Committee. But Democrats, says Brown, who need to turn out all the voters they had in 2020, can’t afford to pass up on opportunities.
Wilson agreed but also said there’s some compelling evidence that Republican voters are on TikTok. He said that based on a survey through his Center for Campaign Innovation in 2022, “about one in five MAGA Republicans were using the TikTok platform.”
Campaign strategists weigh their options
The reality is that despite TikTok’s enormous reach and particular pull with young users, it is nowhere near the indispensable tool that Meta has become for political campaigns. TikTok’s prohibition on political advertising can make it less attractive to campaigns, who operate with limited resources and generally prefer to stick to tried and true methods they know will result in campaign dollars or voter turnout. Plus, having a full-fledged TikTok strategy doesn’t feel top priority to many campaign professionals when they know many of the same users are still using other platforms, too.
“While TikTok continues to have such a high number of users, the audiences that are on TikTok are already very much online on other platforms as well,” executive director of progressive group Priorities USA Danielle Butterfield said in an email to The Verge. Butterfield cited the group’s internal research on likely voters in battleground states, which found that even among respondents who reported using TikTok more than any other platform in the last week, 71 percent also used YouTube, 76 percent used Facebook, 62 percent used Instagram and 46 percent used Snapchat.
Even so, campaign veterans shudder at the idea of leaving votes on the table by failing to take advantage of a large platform available to reach their base.
“The signal it sends if you’re not [on TikTok] is bad, which is, you’re old, you’re out of touch”
Amy Kelleher, senior director at progressive strategic communications agency Bully Pulpit International, says that while it’s an option for campaigns to leave access to the TikTok audience on the table, “in most cases, it does campaigns a disservice.” She added that despite its reputation as being popular with Gen Z, many other groups of voters also show up on the platform, including Millennials and Gen Xers. TikTok is where Kelleher says she sees “a lot of initial focal points of the election happening.”
Tusk said that even if some campaigns don’t really care to invest in TikTok, “the signal it sends if you’re not [on the platform] is bad, which is, you’re old, you’re out of touch.”
“The campaigns that I’ve run, the thesis is: just do everything you can on every single front you can imagine,” Tusk said. “And that’s how you win. You don’t leave a stone unturned if you don’t have to.”
To Wilson, the former Rubio digital operative, using TikTok as a campaign tool while opposing its ownership structure ultimately isn’t all that different from advertising on any other platform a candidate generally disagrees with. “You may not like MSNBC, but sometimes you need to run ads there,” Wilson says. (On the other hand, no one in Congress is accusing MSNBC of being a tool of the Chinese Communist Party or is trying to ban government employees from watching MSNBC.)
In the end, the mixed messaging being sent by voting one way on TikTok and then continuing to campaign on the platform isn’t deterring politicians from doing exactly that. “The upside of the fact that opinions of Congress and Washington are so low is that no one expects them to be anything other than hypocrites,” reflected Tusk.