Michigan governor’s race showcases a clash of digital campaign styles between Whitmer and Dixon

Online messaging, memes and more are a key way to attract Millennial, Gen Z voters, experts say

By: - November 5, 2022 4:12 am

Graphic of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (top) and Tudor Dixon (bottom) | Andrew Roth photos

There are many divisions on policy between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP challenger Tudor Dixon, from abortion rights to environmental policy. And there are vast differences between the two women running for Michigan’s highest office in their digital campaign strategies, as well.

While Whitmer has run a steady stream of TV ads on her accomplishments and personal story while relying on an uplifting, grassroots-focused and savvy-style social media approach, Dixon has taken a more traditional tack, deploying caustic social media posts against her opponent instead of focusing on building an easily identifiable brand. And in recent weeks, she and her allies have continued that tactic with TV spots drilling down on criticisms of Whitmer.

As the race enters its final days, Whitmer leads Dixon by 4.9 percentage points — 49.9% to 45% — per FiveThirtyEight’s latest average of recent polls.

The Advance spoke to campaign and public relations veterans about the importance of digital campaigns and branding in elections, as well as Dixon’s and Whitmer’s respective efforts. Experts emphasized that if candidates want to launch robust efforts, they have to fully commit to authenticity online.

When online content and strategy are really good, it demonstrates that a candidate “is prepared to run a 21st century campaign” and wants to “drive the news cycle with viral moments,” said Georgia Parke, a former digital and social media strategist for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“They want to not just wait for media and news cycles to come to them, but they want to initiate that process themselves by creating something that’s newsworthy or putting something on social media that gets picked up by reporters.”

The increasing prevalence of memes, digital branding, personality-driven merchandise and strong social media personas in political campaigns — most notably from Sanders and former President Donald Trump and — is no secret to political experts.

 

It’s a key way to reach younger voters, who often tune out more traditional TV ads or mailers. And it’s a tactic to get people personally invested in candidates — almost building fandoms similar to those for musical artists or movie franchises.

Voters in the 18 to 39 age range have the lowest turnout rates out of any other demographic. To combat that and draw them in for Election Day, experts say both Democrats and Republicans can target young people by keeping a pulse on digital tools and shifting strategy to hone a campaign’s online presence.

“I don’t think that social media can necessarily win or lose a campaign, but I do think it’s a really important aspect of whether the campaign is doing its best to reach out to young people in particular, who can be really determinative in a lot of key races,” said Parke.

“Unfortunately, young people have the lowest turnout rates; much, much lower than Gen. X and Baby Boomers who are in their 50s and 60s that really consistently turn out to vote. It’s really critical to make sure that young people are being mobilized and being inspired to turn out,” Parke said. “One way to do that is to not only involve young people in the process, but to put them in leadership roles, too.”

Having a strong digital presence doesn’t guarantee victory, of course. There are myriad factors in elections, including the makeup of the electorate, national issues dominating news coverage, candidates’ biographies, fundraising, candidates’ policy positions, get-out-the-vote efforts and more. 

In Parke’s view, no one who masters these elements is predisposed to campaign success, but it is an advantage. 

“I think it’s an indicator that they’re running a smart campaign,” Parke said, “and that they’re running a creative campaign that has potential to really reach a lot of people who may not already be following politics.”

Trump’s campaign is a notable example for his digital presence’s grittiness, compounded with message boards and reply chains bursting with political memes that blossomed outward from his brand. 

Starting with his 2016 campaign, Trump embraced far-right rhetoric and symbols, like Pepe the Frog, that once were considered politically disqualifying. That helped establish Trump as a brasher kind of Republican who wasn’t afraid to court members of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and pulled the party further rightward. The frequent criticism of racism and misogyny in Trump’s posts and merch haven’t caused the ex-president to tone down his message, which has seemed to delight diehard supporters. His rallies are a sea of Trump T-shirts, hats and signs; supporting Trump is part of their identities.

Sen. Bernie Sanders rally in Ann Arbor, March 8, 2020 | Andrew Roth

That organic continuation of political messaging into merch, memes and more also took hold in Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 runs for president, as well as his Senate campaign. Grassroots enthusiasm continues to inspire art, memes and other contributions to Sanders’ online brand outside of the bounds of his own team.

A memorable example is when a bird landed on Sanders’ podium on a Portland stage in 2016, exploding into a barrage of online posts, art, memes and merchandise for his campaign. The Democrat’s use of eye-catching, civil rights-esque rally poster art and celebrity allies like Run the Jewels and N.W.A. have also drawn in Gen Z and Millennial fans.

“For better or worse, Trump kind of changed the game, and I think it forced a lot of candidates to think a little bit differently about how they’re messaging and engaging with voters and building their brands,” said Sara Cederberg, a Michigan-based consultant with Fresh Eyes Digital who formerly worked at Change Media Group and on Democratic Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s 2016 and 2018 campaigns.

“Capitalizing on those meme-worthy moments, I think, is definitely becoming more important than ever,” Cederberg said.

Whitmer has used these moments to her advantage in the gubernatorial race, from the “#BigGretch” hashtag phenomenon in response to her COVID-19 measures to welcoming someone dressed as a shark at campaign events, Detroiters crowdfunding to gift her a pair of Cartier “Buffs” sunglasses, Detroit rap songs about the Democrat and more.

The #BigGretch hashtag exploded on Twitter after Trump lambasted Whitmer repeatedly for her policies throughout the early days of COVID-19, referring to her as “that woman from Michigan.” The hashtag started as a way for Michiganders to recognize that Whitmer’s efforts had helped the state, and particularly Detroit, as people of color were hit particularly hard with the virus.

Whitmer owned the new nicknames and out of it Detroit rapper GmacCash released the song “Big Gretch” in May 2020. He and other Detroiters then crowdfunded to buy a pair of “Buffs” for the governor, who sported them but gave them back and asked for the money to be donated to charity.

“When the city gives you some Buffs, that’s because they feel like you earned them, you deserve them,” GmacCash told WDIV-TV. “It’s just my job, as like the voice of the city and a rap artist of the city, to do a song about it.”

Whitmer is still paying tribute to GmacCash during her 2022 campaign. When former President Barack Obama campaigned for Whitmer in Detroit last week, Whitmer came out to GmacCash’s new song about her, titled “Gretch Did.”

Whitmer’s campaign blends these irreverent moves with more traditional social media posts with the governor touting her accomplishments.

Other moments like Whitmer’s “it’s Shark Week, motherf—er” hot mic quip back in 2020 before her Democratic National Convention speech can happen spontaneously, said Tori Saylor, Whitmer’s former digital and creative director for two years. But it takes digital and social know-how to capitalize on those quick-moving events.

“I think people respond really well to positive, humorous, timely content like that. Because it humanizes the candidate, reminds them that Gov. Whitmer is a fellow Michigander who is really wanting to engage,” Saylor said.

Saylor is also the mastermind behind the popular Twitter account for Whitmer’s two dogs, Kevin and Doug. By incorporating her dogs and her sense of humor into her content, Cederberg said voters “get a real feel for who Gretchen is.”

“They’re doing a great job of incorporating more of that meme-able, snappy content that feels very much like her and her campaign, but doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard either,” Cederberg added.

Building a brand can also be a way for politicians to distinguish themselves when running at the national level. Having already been on President Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice president in 2020, Whitmer is expected by many to eventually run for president if she wins Tuesday — and her Big Gretch persona could come in handy.

Of course, that branding also can also put a political target on candidates. Dixon and Republicans have argued that Whitmer isn’t planning to stick around in Michigan if she wins another term.

“Gretchen Whitmer and [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom are in a primary together right now for president of the United States,” Dixon said in Rochester Hills last month. “Be aware of that.”

For her part, Whitmer told the Detroit News that she’s committed to serving a full four-year term if she is reelected. Neither Dixon’s nor Whitmer’s campaign responded to a request for comment for this story.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaign event in East Lansing (with the shark), Oct. 13, 2022 | Andrew Roth

Dixon’s anti-‘elites’ approach

Dixon, on the other hand, hasn’t prioritized new media strategies and branding and has made the case that Whitmer’s deep campaign pockets aren’t necessary to win the governorship.

Instead, the Republican has embraced other methods to gain name recognition and support. Dixon and her running mate, former state Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) have criticized Whitmer for having small, “invite-only” campaign events — although Whitmer and the Democratic ticket have done big rallies, like last week’s with former President Barack Obama in Detroit. The GOP ticket has emphasized their appearances in areas outside of Michigan’s metro Detroit population base like Alpena, Midland, Marquette, Muskegon and Gaylord that have “small town” feels.

Dixon, Hernandez and their staffers have also embraced the blue-collar look of emblazoned campaign vests à la GOP Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The governor campaigned for Dixon in August, where he gifted her a red vest, and appeared in a TV spot with her.

But Dixon signs and merch have not been a big part of the campaign. At many of her campaign events, her bright yellow signs with the message “Get Schools Back to Basics” have been more prevalent than those with her campaign logo.

Macomb County Trump rally, Oct. 1, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

At a Trump rally on Oct. 1 in Macomb County, hats, T-shirts, signs and more for the former president were everywhere. There were also plenty of signs and merch for Republican secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo and some for attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno. 

There were far fewer for Dixon, which may reflect her spending priorities and the fact that she didn’t run a grassroots-style campaign to win her GOP nomination, unlike DePerno and Karamo, who had to win over party delegates at the Michigan Republican convention this year. In contrast, Dixon ran in a crowded statewide primary and was boosted significantly by support from the DeVos family, a powerful fundraising force in the Michigan GOP for decades. 

There’s also a significant money divide in the governor’s race. Whitmer has raised $36.4 million this cycle — a record for a Michigan gubernatorial candidate who is not self-funding. She has spent a total of $30.5 million and has just over $4 million left to spend before Nov. 8. Dixon has raised a total of $6.8 million and spent $3.8 million, leaving her with just under $3 million.

As a former right-wing commentator, Dixon has had no trouble getting regularly booked on a variety of Fox News shows during her campaign. Hosts like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have been receptive to her messaging and attacks on Whitmer. That’s helped her consistently reach GOP voters, although many may not live in Michigan.

There is also a bevy of right-wing figures in Michigan who regularly go to bat for Dixon on Twitter, including Fred Wszolek, who runs the pro-Dixon super PAC Michigan Strong, and Tori Sachs, who heads the Michigan Freedom Fund, funded by the billionaire DeVos family that endorsed Dixon early in a crowded GOP primary.

“Gretchen Whitmer only had 35 people at this event today. 😬 Meanwhile, the Tudor Dixon campaign is having events outside due to massive crowd size. #migov #FireWhitmer #VoteTudorDixon,” Sachs tweeted last week.

Most tweets from Dixon, Michigan GOP and Republicans both inside and outside Michigan — including Trump allies like attorney Rudy Giuliani and former Ambassador Richard Grenell — take aim at Whitmer. Tweets often include #FireWhitmer, as opposed to a pro-Dixon hashtag.

“When @gretchenwhitmer loses this thing, the cause will be clear: for every pro-choice voter she attracted to her side, she pushed more than one prolife voter toward Dixon. Whitmer is really bad at being governor. And her campaign is really bad at math,” Wszolek tweeted last month.

While Republicans have stayed unified behind Dixon online, Spencer Hayes, a publicist with the Farmington Hills-based firm C&B Scene, said that their message hasn’t matched the reality of the race with Dixon consistently trailing Whitmer.

“The thing that I’ve noticed is mostly just all the Republican messaging has just been full-steam ahead, pretending that Tudor Dixon is killing it and that she’s mounting a miraculous win,” said Hayes.

While Dixon has struggled to compete with Whitmer in fundraising and TV and digital ads, some of those gaps are filled in by supporters themselves — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

One such video from the Gratiot County GOP shared by Dixon did go viral, both online and in national media like, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” albeit for being more of a novelty. 

The Gratiot Party Republicans ad, which was released after the Aug. 2 primary when Dixon was not running ads herself, features seven motorcyclists trading quips about how they feel Whitmer has let Michiganders like them down. One of them complained that “Gram died alone” during the COVID pandemic because of the governor.

“I’m voting for the other chick. What’s her name?” one man says before the rest chime in with, “Tudor Dixon!”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for politics, said it was his “nominee for Worst TV Ad of the 2022 Campaign (even given loads of competition).”

Hernandez tweeted in response to ridicule the video faced: “Apparently, some on the left believe, if you aren’t part of the Hollywood elite, your story doesn’t matter.”

It’s not the first time that Hernandez, Dixon and their allies have blasted “Hollywood elites,” arguing that Whitmer relies on celebrity and huge amounts of campaign funds. 

When she was asked at a September press conference in Lansing about the disparity in ads in the campaign, Dixon responded: “Isn’t that sad that Democrats have to spend so much money?”

But Dixon’s strategy can come off as incohesive, Hayes said. He added that it’s easy to tell the difference in authenticity between when a candidate gets into it versus when an online presence is manufactured.

Comparing U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of progressive congresswomen known as “The Squad,” and billionaire former New York mayor-turned-failed Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, Hayes said in their attempts to theoretically win over a similar group of people.

“AOC feels authentic, and Mike Bloomberg feels calculated and manufactured. He feels like a corporation,” Hayes said. “That’s not inherently bad, but your online persona needs to be in line with your brand and it can’t be contradictory or conflicting.”

The art of leveraging social media to political advantage started in earnest in 2008 during former President Barack Obama’s election campaign, he noted. The platforms were new then and much different than today; it took an enthusiastic base of staff and supporters to use it to such a successful end.

Nowadays, Hayes said, some of the best examples can be seen with the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and others.

 

“It’s difficult to run a successful program unless you are being authentic, unless you are being transparent,” Saylor said. “You could use every single tool on social media available to you. You could, but at the end of the day, the success of that would hinge on the candidate.

“[Whitmer] is absolutely that person in real life that you see her online. She is that engaging and funny and hopeful and optimistic, but you’ll notice from her tone online that it also reflects how seriously she takes the position that she has and that she’s running for it again.”

Cederberg, who is a Democrat, says Dixon’s campaign feels “a bit more scattershot” than Whitmer’s online strategy.

“It does sort of feel like a Frankenstein digital program because you can tell there are probably multiple cooks in the kitchen, creating content that does not feel very cohesive or very dynamic or interesting,” she said.

Younger voters are getting their news online and generally not watching television, notes Paul Bologna, who led the digital operation for more than three years for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The right political staff will be “hyper-effective at reaching people” on social media and communicating in that space to bring those potential voters into the fold.

“It’s exceptional when the candidate really understands the power of the internet and what it means to be online,” said Bologna.

“I think if you’re excelling in this digital space, it probably means that you are looking out for the interests of young people. Because the opposite is, if you’re failing online, well, then you never were talking about the issues that matter to people who are online,” Bologna said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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