Watching state Sen. Matt Little dance around a tree to Justin Timberlake's "Suit & Tie" might seem an odd form of political expression, but a lot of people think the 35-year-old lawmaker from Lakeville might be onto something.
In a time when politicians are increasingly trying to connect with young people, established social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become a cacophony of political voices of all persuasions and ages.
Then there's TikTok, an app that many associate with viral dances and funny memes. "Gen Z," commonly understood as the generation born around the turn of the new millennium, dominates the platform with addictive viral trends — and increasingly with politics and social messaging.
Though youth on both sides of the partisan divide are creating political content, few politicians have devoted their time to engaging young people directly on the app.
Little, a lawyer in his first term in the Legislature, is one of a few who has connected with TikTok users in and out of his district, some on the other side of the world. With more than 130,000 followers, the DFL legislator believes he might be the most followed politician on the app.
"I've always had this methodology or goal that I could speak to people of all ages, on whatever platform they wanted to speak to me on. It started when I was on the City Council 10 years ago," Little said. "If someone wrote me a letter, I wrote them a letter; give me a call, I give them a call."
Though it can be more time-consuming than sending an e-mail or responding to a tweet, for Little, TikTok is no different.
"Young people, Gen Z, and the next generation are on TikTok, and I wanted to be able to speak to that generation," he said.
Little could use an edge in his re-election bid against GOP challenger Zach Duckworth, a veteran and volunteer firefighter who serves as chairman of the Lakeville school board. Little was elected in 2016 by a margin of less than 400 votes, and his suburban swing district is considered a Republican pickup opportunity in 2020.
Duckworth's campaign uses Facebook and Twitter, but he's not on TikTok. He had no comment about Little's TikTok strategy.
TikTok is a video-sharing social networking service founded by a Beijing-based internet technology company in 2012. By 2019, it was cited as the most downloaded mobile app of the decade. But some government officials and political campaigns, including Joe Biden's presidential campaign, have warned against using TikTok due to security concerns. President Donald Trump has threatened to ban the app in the U.S., but on Monday reversed course.
Little became active on the app in February and has quickly amassed a large following of young fans across the country. In the comments, some followers have lamented that they cannot re-elect him because they don't live in his Lakeville Senate district.
"When we first started we had a fairly sizable contingent out of South Africa," Little said. Now, the majority of his followers come from the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
In his videos, Little jokes about campaigning in the heat, shows off his office in St. Paul, and puts an issues-related spin on a viral trend. He has used the app to offer advice for young people interested in pursuing a career in politics and to organize a supply drive in the days following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Little's success stems from his mastery of the language of TikTok, said Ioana Literat, an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Literat and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an assistant professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, began studying political expression on TikTok after the 2016 election.
"I think he understands the core of expression on the platform," Literat said of Little. "He comes across as authentic. For young people, there's no worse thing than trying to seem authentic and then failing."
Peter Loge, a political communications strategist and professor at George Washington University, says politicians who are successful on social media are good at making sure their followers feel like friends or family. He cites New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram, New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker on Twitter, and Little on TikTok.
"What they all do pretty successfully is create the illusion of intimacy. There's no conversation, but you still feel like you know them, because you spent a lot of time with them," Loge said.
Both Literat and Loge are surprised that there are so few political figures on TikTok, but they acknowledge that it's not an easy platform to do well on.
"The platform could be intimidating to older politicians that are not used to it. It's very intimidating to an outsider. Even the type of humor that dominates the platform, it's not something that adults really get," Literat said.
Producing enjoyable content is trickier than Instagram or Twitter, Little said. For a typical video, he has to find a concept, film, choose the song or audio, and edit.
Recently, Little asked for campaign dollars for the first time in a TikTok posting that raised $3,500 from followers who donated on Venmo, a mobile payment app. Little is the only Minnesota lawmaker using the payment app for campaign donations.
"I think small-dollar donations are good for our democracy overall," he said.
More politicians may eventually turn to TikTok for campaigning, Loge said. The app is free and allows politicians to connect with people without the costs associated with direct mail or TV advertisements.
"This is just straight up, 'Here's a free thing, can I have one dollar?' If one person says yes, it's been worth it because these are seconds long," Loge said. Still, the fact that many people on the platform are too young to vote and don't have a lot of money makes it unlikely that the app is the next best thing, Loge said.
Literat hopes that the app retains its roots as an outlet for youth expression.
"There's a sense of generational power, there's a sense of collective efficacy that's going on TikTok that I think is awesome. I love that it's youth-specific and grassroots, and I don't want politics to kind of muddy that," Literat said.
Though it's not traditional, Little has had a blast so far connecting with a young, active audience, even if it means dancing around a tree in his front yard in a suit and tie while a campaign staffer records on the senator's iPhone.
"I'm just super thankful that people think I'm funny and want to engage through TikTok," Little said.
Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 • @zoemjack