Why Fetterman’s Victory is Noteworthy (and Exciting)

After an arduous campaign, with a sizable 5-point lead, John Fetterman passed the finish line of the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, surprising many people across the nation. 

Once Fetterman was elected as the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat of Pennsylvania, he was consistently polling ahead of his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz. Over time, his advantage over Oz began to slip. In the weeks leading up to the election, Oz began leading Fetterman in some polls, though by a very slim margin. While this was in the margin of error of nearly every poll, it felt like the public and media were bracing for a Fetterman defeat. 

I felt the shift of negativity towards Fetterman came after his debate performance in late October. Frankly, it was pretty terrible. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, and this debate, to many people, showed that Fetterman may not be fully recovered from his stroke. Many media outlets questioned his ability to be in the U.S. Senate, as did I. 

Then came Election Day. Throughout the night, Pennsylvania polling locations were working tirelessly to count ballots as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this left us on the edge of our seats as to who would come out on top. At the end of November 8, the race was still undecided. However, the next morning, it was clear Fetterman was crossing the finish line with more votes.

So what did Fetterman do differently? To me, I think Fetterman accomplished what many Democrats fail to do; that is successfully helm a campaign that embraced the Gen Z side of politics, especially TikTok.

Usually, when I see a politician attempt to make a “funny” TikTok, I can’t help but cringe, because often it comes off as insincere and a low-effort move to appeal to Gen Z voters. Fetterman’s TikTok was different. His videos seemed more authentic and came from a place of understanding and respecting Gen Z, rather than an attempt to emulate the trends of Gen Z voters. Throughout his campaign, Fetterman launched a slew of memes often making fun of Oz. To me, they were sincere and most of the time, pretty funny.

Fetterman made sure to hire a diverse group of Gen Z and millennial staffers, offering different ideas as to how to most effectively reach young voters. His campaign didn’t seem like it was based on an algorithm that the DNC found most successful, as many Democratic political campaigns seem to be. Throughout every TikTok, campaign advertisement and tweet, John Fetterman came across as himself; a Pennsylvanian working-class man who loves a good hoodie. 

Fetterman’s wardrobe is a testament to the authenticity of his campaign. For better or for worse, a hoodie is not what you might expect a politician running for a U.S. Senate seat to be wearing along the campaign trail. Even a few days before Fetterman’s victory, while standing next to President Biden and former President Obama, he was brandishing his iconic hoodie. While I do think this was most likely a turn-off to voters who want their politicians to embody a more traditional, professional look, I think the hoodie-wearing did a lot to convey Fetterman’s unique personality. 

Many political scientists have found the most effective way to increase voter turnout in your favor, is through in-person get-out-the-vote efforts, rather than digital emails or tweets candidates might put out. In fact, many studies have found that emails and tweets result in no benefit to voter turnout at all. While I do not have any quantitative evidence to back my claim up, I believe TikTok could be a digital method for politicians to increase voter turnout, depending on how they wield it. 

In contrast, Fetterman’s opponent, Dr. Oz, tried to use his celebrity and attempted to go the “Fetterman way” through creating marketable videos that, in my opinion, fell flat on their face. One specific video featured Oz going through a Pennsylvanian grocery store (of which he mispronounced the name) and picking out certain items, reading their price, and speaking about how Joe Biden is driving grocery store items up. Frankly, it came across as if Oz has never shopped at a grocery store before. Of course, Fetterman’s campaign team was quick to create a slew of memes and TikToks poking fun at this video.

Politicians who utilize Fetterman’s casual, personable usage of memes may see increased favorability and maybe even voter turnout in Gen Z voters. Fetterman’s campaign also shows that politicians should refrain from neglecting the Gen Z voter base, as it often seems like politicians do. 

As a college student, Fetterman’s campaign felt more relatable, more catered towards me, and even though Fetterman is far from a perfect candidate (as if there is), I felt that his campaign cared about my vote significantly more than other campaigns. If Democrats want to see more results like the Fetterman vs. Oz election, then they should study the social media habits of John Fetterman.