Teens expand TikTok playbook to help Democrats in Georgia runoffs

Teens and first-time voters who jumped into political organizing this year are expanding their TikTok-focused playbook in an effort to boost the Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia’s crucial runoff elections next week.

Youth-led groups are drawing on successful campaigns they launched in the fall — leveraging influence from TikTok accounts with large followings and creating memes that mock Republican candidates — to mobilize young voters ahead of the Jan. 5 elections in the Peach State that will decide which party controls the Senate.

“I think we're really building off of that momentum that we’ve built up and going a step further and really becoming creative with it and letting young people take the lead,” Alicia Novoa, director of engagement at the youth-led Future Coalition, told The Hill.

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Future Coalition partnered with a group called Gen-Z for Change, previously known as TikTok for Biden, last week for a virtual phone and text banking event in support of Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia. The event used Zoom breakout rooms to let volunteers virtually phone and text bank with popular TikTok users who combined had more than 5 million followers.

“This was totally youth-led. It was me, a young organizer, and my peers saying, ‘How can we bring other young people?’ And saying, ‘Let's bring TikTokers,’” said Novoa, a 19-year-old sophomore at Georgetown University.

“That wouldn't come up naturally with seasoned political operatives,” she added. “It's really something new that’s innovative. Something that’s super niche for young people.”

Gen-Z for Change launched as TikTok for Biden ahead of the general election. The group brought together hundreds of TikTok creators to support Biden and target a young audience. After Biden became president-elect, the group changed to broaden its goals and is now pumping out content to energize voters ahead of the Georgia runoffs, where Republican Sens. David PerdueDavid PerdueLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Georgia Republican secretary of state hits Loeffler as 'weak,' 'fake Trumper' MORE and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerSchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Trump says Herschel Walker will enter Georgia Senate race WNBA announces zero COVID-19 positive tests, 99 percent fully vaccinated MORE are fighting to keep their seats, and the Senate, in GOP hands.

Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFor families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football Anything-but-bipartisan 1/6 commission will seal Pelosi's retirement. Here's why Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE in 1992 to win Georgia, largely driven by turnout among young voters and voters of color. Democrats have widely praised voting rights activist Stacey Abrams and her organization, Fair Fight, for mobilizing Democrats statewide.

Recent polls show a tight race in both Georgia Senate races. Young and first-time voters are yet again poised to play a key role at the ballot box, where the Senate majority for the next two years will be decided. If Ossoff and Warnock both win, Democrats will win back control of the Senate.

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Youth voter turnout nationwide increased this year compared with the 2016 election, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. An estimated 52 to 55 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, up from about 42 to 44 percent in the 2016 elections.

In Georgia, youth voters made up 20 percent of all ballots cast in the general election, according to the data from CIRCLE.

The majority of voters in that age group broke for Biden, at 58 percent, compared to 39 percent who voted for Trump. That bump was largely driven by Black voters. While just 34 percent of white voters in Georgia under the age of 30 voted for Biden, an overwhelming 90 percent of Black voters supported him, according to CIRCLE data.

Young voters also were more likely to vote for Ossoff, at 54 percent, compared to 43 percent who backed Perdue, according to CNN exit polls.

Organizing aimed at mobilizing and educating voters about the runoff may have an even larger impact than similar work done ahead of the general election because of lower overall awareness of the runoffs, said Ben Wessel, executive director of the progressive group NextGen America.

“You had to be living under several rocks to not know the [general] election was happening, and that's completely different in January of an odd numbered year,” Wessel said.

NextGen has partnered with Instagram, TikTok and YouTube accounts with large followings to spread information about key election-related dates and ballot requests ahead of the runoff. The efforts mimic similar steps taken by the group before the Nov. 3 election.

“It’s actually adding new information to almost everyone who is watching it because most young people aren’t aware they would have to request another ballot or that early voting is happening over the holidays,” Wessel said. “All of these things that are just so strange and different and unprecedented.”

Jackie Ni, an 18-year-old who created a super PAC in July to boost Biden, is using similar tactics to back Ossoff and Warnock through memes and interactive features.

Ni’s MemePAC TikTok account has more than 341,000 followers. The account is still posting some “anti-Trump” content but is ramping up content focused on the Georgia election, Ni said.

For example, MemePAC has several TikTok videos aimed at casting Perdue as a “chicken” over the candidate not agreeing to debate Ossoff. Ni indicated his PAC is planning to launch an anti-Perdue digital ad building off the “chicken” meme.

“I don't want to give too much away but it involves a chicken nugget. I think you know who that refers to in Georgia,” Ni said.

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Ossoff’s campaign has jumped on the TikTok bandwagon ahead of the runoffs to reach young voters. The campaign’s official TikTok account posted its first video at the start of December and has since amassed more than 171,000 followers and nearly 3 million “likes."

The TikTok account, under the handle @Jon, uses TikTok trends to amplify the 33-year-old candidate’s platform.

In a video posted Monday, Ossoff showed “things on my campaign bus that just make sense,” playing off a popular TikTok trend where users show off their rooms or houses. In Ossoff’s take, he highlights the “cabinet dedicated exclusively to snacks,” the closet for his shirts “that doesn’t close” and a seven-foot-tall cutout of himself.

“Georgia's unprecedented youth turnout in the general election was a result of years of Georgia Democrats' hard work and Jon's relentless focus on turning out young voters. Our Digital Program’s strategy is intended to meet young voters where they are: online,” Ossoff campaign spokesperson Miryam Lipper said in a statement. “TikTok is one creative element we’re using to speak to young voters about the issues that impact their lives.”

Some of Ossoff’s TikTok content also features Warnock, 55, including one video highlighting a joint event with the two Democrats as the “combination Ossoff Warnock Senate runoff,” playing off another popular TikTok audio clip.

The Warnock campaign does not have a TikTok account, nor do the Loeffler or Perdue campaigns.

Novoa said the shift to reach young voters proves what young organizers have already known: “Young people show up.”

“And this year we saw a historic youth turnout,” she said. “I think finally the narrative has been starting to shift, because of the tireless work of so many organizers, from being that young people don't care to young people just need to be engaged and invested in.”