How to Make an Old Politician a TikTok Sensation

A Q&A with the digital director of Ed Markey’s primary campaign.

Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey began his Senate re-election campaign last year as a relatively unassuming legislator overshadowed by his counterpart Elizabeth Warren. By September 1, the Democrat had become a progressive champion, social media breakout star, and had defeated a primary challenger with the most famous last name in Massachusetts.

What a difference a year makes.

The 74-year-old Markey who has served in Congress for 46 years began his campaign trailing the challenger, then 39-year-old congressman Joseph Kennedy III, by double digits in the polls. Markey won by nearly 11 points thanks to a digital strategy that rebranded him as a hip trailblazer for progressive causes. When a photo of Markey wearing retro Air Jordan shoes went viral in April, the campaign seized on the opportunity to build a digital following. Campaign staffers interacted and collaborated with dozens of meme accounts that sprung up in support of Markey; coordinated hundreds of Gen Z-ers in a Slack channel to host phone banks and events; and built a virtual community of organizers.

Markey’s campaign was a master class in the marriage of style and substance. Led by digital communications and creative director (and millennial) Paul Bologna, the Markey campaign and its young surrogates successfully used Twitter and TikTok to highlight Markey’s progressive bona fides as an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and defender of net neutrality, with videos of Markey discussing policy over lo-fi beats. I spoke with Bologna on October 15 about the reverberations of Markey’s digital strategy for other campaigns, for building a new class of progressive organizers, and for building an authentic political brand online.

This conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity.

GB: Your digital strategy involved being super collaborative with young people. Where do you see the digital relationship between political campaigns and volunteers going in the future?

PB: For the foreseeable future, traditional campaigning is not necessarily safe. And so I think creating these welcoming, fluid, and fun online spaces—it could be a Slack channel, or it could be a DM [Direct Message] group, or it could be a group on a messaging app—can serve the same function. And these digital spaces can maybe do a better job of getting a message out online (than can traditional organizing). Young people are the ones who just dominate any kind of digital medium because they’re all digital natives. And that empowers young people to use those spaces effectively and to use those tools better than Boomers do, because they’re more comfortable.

GB: A lot of young people engaged with the Markey campaign. As these young people begin their careers, do you see them disrupting political consulting and digital strategy?

PB: I really believe that one of the intentions — and I think we succeeded in it in our campaign — was to help create the next generation of progressive activists. Immediately after our primary ended, our operation shifted to supporting down-ballot races and supporting Biden and Harris, because we have this incredible opportunity and energy to do that effectively. We saw a lot of our supporters, volunteers, fellows, and staff refocus their energy that way. And we saw a lot of people just jump ship and go to the next fight.

Is it a new class of disruptive strategists? They’ve definitely learned things in an extreme, unique circumstance: a quarantined political campaign where everything is primarily digital. If you didn’t go through that, it would be very difficult to compete with it. They’re uniquely qualified in ways that traditional campaigns or campaigns that didn’t adapt as well will not be.

GB: What are the conversations that you hear among your peers in the political digital communications space about the success of the Markey campaign in the primary, and what lessons they’re going to take from it?

PB: A number of people are actively trying to adapt some of the things that we were successful in doing. It’s a model that involves looking at and fighting really hard for young people’s issues, like climate change. If you create that space for them, then young people will rally for you. They will fight for you. And they will show up in the new world of politics, which is online, in ways that will totally eclipse an older generation that isn’t as present in that space.

Enthusiasm for these issues is not something you can fake. You have to earn it. Young people are highly skeptical. But if you really are sticking your neck out for climate, they will observe that and believe it. You’ll start to get all kinds of weird Twitter accounts supporting you, yet those weird Twitter accounts actually do reflect a number of people who are going to make calls or invite more people to join your campaign. That’s kind of what I’ve seen in some of the races that have been going on since September 1.

GB: Progressivism is in this weird state because there’s so much energy among the left, and particularly the young left, but right now it’s all about getting Joe Biden elected. Do you think this political digital strategy can be effective at getting more moderate Democrats to embrace progressive ideas?

PB: What I’ve heard from a lot of the Zoomers [Gen Z members] who I’ve been lucky to work with is that you don’t necessarily have to have been a 40-year strong lefty to have their support. You can have made mistakes. You can have not always been with them. But if today, you are coming around to the issues that matter most to the future of the world, and you’re doing it in a way that’s authentic, young people will rally.

GB: What’s the biggest misconception you see among political consultants and strategists about Gen Z voters and young voters?

PB: There is a general idea that they don’t vote or that they don’t care. But go on TikTok. Ed Markey has a TikTok, and it has hundreds of thousands of views on videos about climate change and about his time as a teenager, and it’s like “Okay, I think they do care—cause they’re freaking out in the comments.”

GB: A lot of politicians struggle on Twitter or on social media. They often come off as cheesy or out of touch. They get ratioed a lot. [Ratioed is when a tweet receives more replies than it does likes] Quote tweets mocking the original tweet will go more viral than the actual tweet. How do you thread the needle, in terms of digital strategy, between what’s cringe and what’s cool?

PB: For us, it was about embracing Ed Markey for who he is. And Ed is a 74-year-old United States senator who introduced the Green New Deal two years ago with the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. That’s a pretty good place to start. But you have to retain your voice and not be afraid of your voice. So we never tried to be something that we weren’t. We’re going to stick to Ed’s voice. We’re going to talk to him about our digital strategy so that he’s part of it. That allowed us to not slip into cringe.

Plus, we had limits. There were a lot of people suggesting we do a montage of the sneakers. But the sneakers are cool because he wears them. We’re not going to lean too hard into something just cause it gets people to scream, because eventually it looks really forced. We’re going to be who Ed Markey is.

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Gabby Birenbaum

Gabby Birenbaum, a Washington Monthly intern, is a senior at Northwestern University studying journalism and political science.