Max Rymer is an underdog legislative candidate who had something important to say recently and took to Twitter to say it: “People have asked me about my position on Nickelback. I am against.”
It was a smirking gesture meant to show that Rymer is a different kind of Republican: He has the musical taste to reject the polarizing pop band.
Don’t go looking for Rymer’s older Twitter posts, though: “We scrubbed our Twitter account a bit,” he says sheepishly.
The same goes for Erin Maye Quade, a DFL newcomer running for an open House seat in Apple Valley: “Why distract with things I was saying to like 102 people for fun?” she asked.
Rymer, 25, and Maye Quade, 30, embody a new generation’s new politics: They use social media to create a personal political brand from nothing, one that is fresh, irreverent and broadly appealing to the roughly 75 million Americans between ages 18 and 34.
But having lived their lives online, candidates often leave behind a wealth of forgotten posts: Slapdash opinions and bawdy jokes have the potential to destroy a candidate when put in the hands of rivals.
It’s called “context collapse,” when a personal aside or offbeat photo can suddenly reach millions or even billions of people.
David Karpf, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, has a favorite example from 2010, when photos surfaced of Virginia Democratic congressional candidate Krystal Ball and her husband engaged in some risqué humor at a Christmas party six years earlier.
Among friends? A laugh riot. On the internet? A campaign nightmare.
“The trick is that anything can go viral,” Karpf said. “It can move from one context to another.”
Minnesota Democrats defending U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan hope that dynamic will play out in his race against Fleet Farm heir Stewart Mills.
Mills has been criticized for making some “Mad Men” era jokes on Facebook years ago in posts first reported by City Pages.
Here’s one from 2009, when he tells a friend what he’s up to: “I am hangin’ in my new house while my wife is takin care of the kids an making me dinner while I am on face book. That’s why I had to walk for the women’s shelter!!!! I am such an (expletive.) Really I AM!”
Mills’ campaign manager, John Eloranta, released a statement: “When a campaign can’t defend their candidate’s record, they resort to baseless, personal attacks and out-of-context sound bites and social media musings from years ago.”
The Mills example serves as evidence that we are in what Karpf calls a “dream landscape” for those digging up dirt on political rivals.
Candidates have much thicker public profiles than ever before, and now there are easy ways to disseminate — also on social media — the incriminating or even the mildly distasteful.
What might long ago have been tossed-off thoughts or jokes to a friend on a bar stool are now being tweeted or posted to Facebook in a moment of careless candor, remaining out there for all to see.
And don’t forget the opposition researchers’ true gold: Photos — everything from images of margaritas on the beach in an ill-fitting bathing suit to some college keg party scene with a water bong in the background.
“My generation is the first generation to run for office with a lot of our lives on social media. We’re an experiment,” said Maye Quade, whose GOP opponent is Ali Jimenez-Hopper. “How will people react to what we said at 18 or 22, now that a I’m 30-year-old professional?”
Maye Quade decided to remove an Instagram photo of an early afternoon glass of wine, captioned by a dry profanity about the need for some day drinking. She has also scrubbed bawdy humor that barely registers on social media but in another context — say, the aisles of an Apple Valley grocery store — might seem shocking.
Jimenez-Hopper’s personal Facebook page offered the DFL ammunition with a graphic post about the “gun under my shirt” she carries to protect herself and loved ones. In another post, she called Hillary Clinton “a criminal with our troops’ blood all over [her] hands.” In a statement, Jimenez-Hopper said she does indeed support the Second Amendment, and as the wife of a veteran, “I have deep concerns about how Secretary Clinton treated our troops and their families.”
GOP state Rep. Roz Peterson, meanwhile, caught the attention of the DFL last week when she had her photo taken with a cutout of Donald Trump, who generally has his weakest support in suburban areas like the one she represents.
No candidate better exemplifies the perils and possibilities of social media than Trump. The GOP nominee has captured attention with a series of provocative tweets. But he has had some high-profile misfires, like retweeting a white supremacist or, after the attack on an Orlando nightclub that left dozens dead and wounded, this ill-timed bragging: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
No matter the risks, however, social media is becoming an imperative.
A whopping 90 percent of millennials are on social media. Older Americans have joined in: Three-fourths of those ages 30 to 49, plus more than one-third of Americans older than 65 are sharing their lives with friends and family and the rest of the online world, according to the Pew Research Center.
Political spending is swiftly moving online, too, with digital ad spending topping $1 billion this year for the first time, according to Borrell Associates, a media research firm.
Despite the opportunity for political sinkholes online, some younger candidates say it is not a problem.
Thomas Trehus, who is running a long-shot race against longtime Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he has no problem with incriminating social media posts: “I lived a pretty boring life,” he said of his youth.
It is just common sense when it comes to not offending the voters, he said: “If you’re going to work for Target, you don’t want to be bashing Target on Twitter.”
The Facebook page of Rep. Drew Christensen — whose DFL challenger is Jared Christiansen — is a dream for his political handlers. It shows nothing before 2014, when he first ran. Posts since then are almost perfectly curated messages for the median suburban voters of his district — mildly conservative plus some crossover appeal like recognizing the passage of the 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage.
Most important: They are utterly dull.
Maye Quade said it’s simply a matter of recognizing a larger audience that has come to candidates to hear about policies and plans, not about parties or Pokemon.
“People wanted to interact with me because I was running for office, not hear my pleas that Frank Ocean needs to release his album,” said Maye Quade, who drew 600 new followers upon declaring for office, most of whom she said have little interest in her previous Twitter persona, which she calls “silly, funny and crass.”
Rymer faces a tough race against Rep. Paul Rosenthal, DFL-Edina, and he isn’t about to go all boring on the voters.
In one of his YouTube “Maxplainers” — his quirky videos about complex issues — Rymer finishes his argument on behalf of legalizing Sunday alcohol sales with an arresting image: Yes, that’s him chugging a beer.