PENNSYLVANIA — The high-profile Senate race between Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, and television’s celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has a distinctly modern feel. …
PENNSYLVANIA — The high-profile Senate race between Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, and television’s celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has a distinctly modern feel. More than any of the other traditional platforms, the two candidates have garnered the most attention through social media.
Fetterman’s campaign in particular has proven adept at the art of discrediting its opponent through memes on Instagram and sarcastic jabs on Twitter. These popular platforms have proven invaluable for the former Braddock mayor, who had to take a months-long break from in-person campaigning after suffering a stroke in May of this year. His campaign eventually revealed that Fetterman has a condition called cardiomyopathy, which makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the body.
“As I recover from this stroke and improve my auditory processing and speech, I look forward to continuing to meet with the people of Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said in an August 30 statement.
Many of the lieutenant governor’s most biting internet posts depict Oz as an out-of-touch carpet bagger—Oz only moved to Pennsylvania in late 2020, although he also attended medical school and got married in PA. One of the most successful stunts so far has been getting well-known New Jersey celebrities to post videos online calling out Oz for owning a mansion in New Jersey.
Fetterman’s campaign paid Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from the reality show “Jersey Shore” to post a video addressed to Oz.
“I heard you moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job,” she said. “I know you’re away from home and you’re in a new place… but don’t worry, you’ll be back in Jersey soon. This is only temporary.”
Following the popularity of that post, Stevie Van Zandt, a “Sopranos” actor and a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, recorded a message of his own, telling Oz, “Nobody wants to see you get embarrassed, so come on back to Jersey where you belong.”
On the Republican side, Oz has had less social media success. In some cases, his online presence has proven to be more of a liability than an effective tool. In a Twitter post now infamously known as “the crudités video” by those following the election, Oz attempted to demonstrate the severity of inflation by taking viewers with him on a trip down the produce aisle as he shopped for ingredients for a supposed crudités platter.
In just a little over 30 seconds, Oz managed to call the grocery store he was in “Wegners,” an apparently accidental portmanteau of two actual grocery chains in the commonwealth, Wegmans and Redners. He then gathered various ingredients that together form an unusual dish—raw broccoli, asparagus, carrots, guacamole and salsa—and rather than tossing them in a shopping cart, he awkwardly piled the veggies and dips into his arms, leading many Twitter users to question how often he really performs his own grocery shopping.
It hasn’t all been goofs and spoofs, however. When Fetterman canceled a TV debate originally scheduled for September 6, citing his continuing stroke recovery, Oz’s campaign jumped on the opportunity to call into question whether the Democratic candidate is physically and mentally well enough to serve.
One of Oz’s press releases sarcastically listed the “top ten reasons” Fetterman pulled out of the debate, and accused the Democratic candidate of being “scared of Dr. Oz,” and suggested a televised debate “might accidentally reveal a health condition that’s worse than previously disclosed.”
It’s not the first time Oz has attempted to use Fetterman’s stroke to his advantage. During the fallout of the crudités video, Rachel Tripp, a spokeswoman for the doctor’s campaign, tried turning the tables with this statement:
“If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
The sardonic tone toward Fetterman’s health has continued with a list of “concessions” the Oz camp sarcastically offered in order to keep the debate on as scheduled. Among them, Oz promised not to “intentionally hurt John’s feelings,” that “at any point, John Fetterman can raise his hand and say, ‘Bathroom break!’” and offered to “pay for any additional medical personnel [Fetterman] might need to have on standby.”
Fetterman has responded to that statement, accusing his opponent of crossing a line.
“Today’s statement from Dr. Oz’s team made it abundantly clear that they think it is funny to mock a stroke survivor. I chose not to participate in this farce,” he said. “My recovery may be a joke to Dr. Oz and his team, but it’s real for me.”
With each election, social media is clearly becoming an increasingly important resource for candidates to shape their image and connect to prospective voters on a more personal level than a television ad or stump speech can achieve. Some analysts paying attention to this race have called Fetterman’s personable, comical social media presence “among the best, if not the best” they’ve seen from a political candidate.
However, posting the cleverest memes and scoring the hottest roasts don’t necessarily translate into garnering the most votes on Election Day, especially considering that younger audiences, who tend to be most engaged online, are less likely to vote than older Americans. Bernie Sanders, for example, struck unprecedented resonance with young people online, and ultimately lost to both Clinton and Biden in the past presidential primaries.
Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate in the Texas governor’s race, serves as a more current example of a politician performing great online, but still falling behind in the polls.
Some say that Fetterman’s relentless style is noteworthy, however. Maggie MacDonald, of the New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, told the Associated Press that she thinks Fetterman’s stunts could be a motivating force both for campaign contributions and apathetic Democratic voters.
“I imagine in future years people will try to emulate this,” MacDonald said of Fetterman’s viral strategy.
Fetterman has maintained a lead in the polls, but only by a slim margin of four or five percentage points, according to a recent Emerson College poll.
With Fetterman performing better among urban voters and Oz performing better among rural ones, Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling told ABC 27 News, “Suburban voters are the battleground for this election… Forty-seven percent support Fetterman, and 47% support Oz.”
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