Democrats 'like' it: The secret to Ocasio-Cortez's social media success
"We've just never had someone who matches both our demographics and our politics."
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th Congressional District, takes a selfie with Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., right, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Breaking News Emails
Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
WASHINGTON — Less than three weeks after being sworn in as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez already has more Twitter followers than Speaker Nancy Pelosi, more interactions than Barack Obama, one of C-SPAN's most-watched congressional floor speeches of all time and a ubiquitous nickname that doubles as her Twitter handle — "AOC."
Democrats want to learn from her, Republicans want to destroy her and many in Washington fear being "dunked on" by her. The 29-year-old House freshman from New York is showing her older peers what the future of politics might look like once the digital natives like her take over, for better or worse.
"We've just never had someone who matches both our demographics and our politics," said Waleed Shahid, who worked on her campaign and is the communications director of the left-wing group Justice Democrats. "Bernie (Sanders) matches our politics, but he doesn't match our demographics."
Democrats were not exactly thrilled when Ocasio-Cortez ousted the veteran lawmaker in line to be their next speaker in a Democratic primary last year and marked her first day on Capitol Hill by joining a sit-in in Pelosi's office. But increasingly, if begrudgingly, they seem to have concluded, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Party leaders tapped Ocasio-Cortez to lead a social media training for her House colleagues last week, and presidential candidates seem to be cribbing from her cooking-while-Instagraming playbook, broadcasting themselves cracking beers in their kitchens, getting a dental cleaning and other vignettes of their daily lives.
"This shift is exciting to us as it demonstrates an understanding by these campaigns that the more authentic and native their digital content feels, the more online audiences are likely to engage with it," the Democratic digital firm ACRONYM wrote in a newsletter alerting subscribers to the trend of "the 'casual' campaign video."
After all, politicians are in a sales business. Their product is themselves and their ideas, but many voters aren't buying because of the carefully controlled way they've been pitched for years.
"People have exquisitely well-developed bulls--- meters," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who helped lead the social media seminar with Ocasio-Cortez last week. "Almost every real tweet is going to involve a little bit of risk. It's going to be a little bit of opening the kimono into a member's private life, because a little bit of risk is authentic."
Himes, a white 52-year-old Goldman Sachs alum who chairs the centrist New Democrat coalition, looks and sounds very different from Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx-born Latina Democratic Socialist.
But Himes said he and Ocasio-Cortez, who did not respond to an interview request, both offered similar social media advice to their colleagues, whom he acknowledged have a lot of catching up to do.
"We were both trying to hammer home this message of, 'Speak like yourself, be a human,'" said Himes. "Anything you can do to close the gap between the blow-dried, poll-tested, bullet-pointed politician and the people."
That doesn't mean mimicking Ocasio-Cortez — "You don't need be hip, in fact it's probably disastrous to be hip," Himes quipped — but rather, as the age-old dating advice goes, being yourself.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
John Dingell, the 92-year-old former Michigan congressman, and Chuck Grassley, the 85-year-old current Republican senator from Iowa, have both built followings on Twitter by leaning into their get-off-my-lawn personas. Grassley once declared to the world, "I now h v an iphone," while Dingell pondered the Kardashians.
Staff has now informed me of what a Kardashian is.
Politics is increasingly an exercise in digital marketing and creating content that has to compete for eyeballs with everyone from teenage influencers to major news outlets.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has his own talk show and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, starred in what was essentially a low-budget reality show about his Senate campaign last year, broadcast live to fans by his staff on Facebook.
Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's former 2016 campaign manager, said he counsels 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls to modernize their thinking beyond old-style retail politicking in Iowa or New Hampshire.
"This is a national campaign, and its headquarters is in cyberspace," he said. "You have to build ground operations in those early states, but Bernie Sanders had almost no organization in Iowa, Donald Trump had no operation — both came in second."
Ocasio-Cortez is hardly the first politician to "get" social media.
Almost a decade ago, when he was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker was famous for showing up at his constituents' doors with a snow plow or diapers or whatever else people told him on Twitter they needed.
"If Cory Booker is pretty good at Instagram as far as politicians go, the vibe's still sometimes like your Bible study leader is giving you a college campus tour," wrote Katherine Miller of Buzzfeed. "Ocasio-Cortez uses Instagram like the rest of us do — reflexively, incidentally."
And there will be many more where she came from.
Before the new Congress was sworn in this month, the average age of its members was about 60. That made the 115th Congress one of the oldest in history and, on average, 20 years older than the American public at large.
The 101 new members of the 116th Congress, however, include 26 millennials (up from six in the last Congress), and 18 more GenXers. Baby Boomers still make up a majority of lawmakers overall, around 54 percent, but their ranks are thinning quickly, according to Pew.
Meanwhile, millennials are projected to overtake Baby Boomers sometime this year as a share of the overall U.S. population, and 85 percent of them use social media, compared to 57 percent of Boomers.
Lawmakers' bungled questions to tech executives at recent hearings have shown just how many in Congress remain woefully ignorant about even the basics of technology that is now integral to the lives and political reality of tens of millions of Americans.
So it's not surprising that Democrats turned to their youngest new member for some advice, just as grandparents might ask their grandchildren for help setting up Facebook.
But if this is the future, even proponents worry about some pitfalls.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., built a huge social media following during the rise of the anti-Trump "resistance" with acerbic and timely tweets about the scandal du jour that have earned him close to 1 million followers.
But it's not always possible to know whether a joke will land effectively on Twitter, even for Lieu, who cited a recent tweet he sent mocking Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., where the sarcasm didn't quite come through to some followers.
"Elected officials are just people, like everyone else," Lieu said. "We have our strengths and weaknesses and we're just people."
Others have argued that politicians who are superficially charming on social media are given a pass on the substance of their job.
That's a point conservative critics, along with some mainstream journalists and fact checkers, have made about Ocasio-Cortez, noting she has whiffed on some facts and figures, like when the Washington Post fact checker gave her four "Pinocchios" for tweeting a mangled comparison of the cost of Pentagon waste with that of a Medicare for All health plan.
Some on the left, meanwhile, make that same case against O'Rourke, worrying that progressive voters are blind to the vein of centrism that has run through his political career because they think he's cool.
Ocasio-Cortez distilled her formula best in a tweet from the early days of her campaign: "Bernie + Cardi = @Ocasio2018." Cardi is Cardi B, the rapper who went viral last week for explaining the government shutdown in a decidedly NSFC (Not Safe For Congress) video.
Should politics on social media be more like Cardi B? Many are likely uncomfortable with that.
"It's a little bit like love," said Himes. "You want to be real, you want to be honest, but you always want to leave a little bit of mystery there. I'm not sure that photographs of dentists drilling into my mouth leave quite enough mystery."
Alex Seitz-Wald is senior digital politics reporter for NBC News.