Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Instagrammed her congressional orientation and the #squad of female legislators stormed Capitol Hill feeds, before Elizabeth Warren relaxed after a long day of announcing she would run for president by drinking a beer on Instagram Live, there was Mayor Cory Booker and his hyperactive Twitter account.
Booker was, perhaps, the first true social media influencer in politics. Performing acts of public service online during extreme weather events helped burnish his image as the “superhero” mayor of Newark, and his willingness to respond to anyone — and we really mean anyone — who tweeted at him earned the chief executive of a city with a population of less than 300,000 a national platform. He later used that clout to position himself as a front-runner to replace the late Frank Lautenberg as a U.S. senator from New Jersey.
Over the years, Booker has branched out to other platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram and professionalized his social media. He frequently films his own content in selfie-mode and speaks directly to audiences about the issues he is tackling. He recently posted a lengthy interview with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on his Instagram Story where they tackled weighty topics such as bigotry and forgiveness. And on the day of his campaign announcement, his account was strategically retweeting well-wishers and critics alike.
Now, Booker has announced he will enter the 2020 presidential race, and he brings with him a personal Twitter following of 4.13 million users to whom he will attempt to disseminate his message (Booker maintains a separate account for his Senate business, but it has a much smaller following).
“Senator Booker wants his constituents, his voters, to feel as if they know him, they have a personal connection,” said Peter Loge, an associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs with a long history of crafting online political communications. “There’s a little bit serious; there’s a little bit of fun."
Booker joined Twitter in August 2008, and it didn’t take long for him to gain traction there. “One of the things Senator Booker does very well is to create an interpersonal, one-on-one relationship with the folks he’s trying to reach,” Loge said. By retweeting and replying to constituents, “it creates a sense of intimacy” with the senator, he said.
When a blizzard hit the East Coast in 2010, Booker communicated directly with Newark residents who needed their streets plowed and other emergency services.
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he was at it again. He allowed Newark residents to stay with him after the storm ravaged New Jersey. His Twitter feed served as a one-man rapid response operation for people impacted by the disaster.
Booker’s reputation for openness also resulted in a famous Twitter exchange over frozen snacks. “i m out of hot pockets to put in the oven,” one concerned user wrote in November 2012, a few days after Sandy struck. “I believe in you,” Booker replied. “I know this is a problem you can handle.” The exchange went viral and prompted HotPockets to send the mayor coupons to distribute to Newark residents impacted by Sandy. (Naturally, HotPockets tweeted at Booker after his announcement Friday.) In addition to HotPockets, Booker has also worked with fellow Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to secure federal money to offset the storm’s damage.
He also frequently tweeted positive and inspirational messages to his followers, a precursor to the uplifting tone he would take on social media as a senator.
But there have been downsides to Booker’s radical accessibility.
Like everyone who dares to violate the social media dictum of #NeverTweet, Booker’s habit occasionally got him in trouble. In 2013, in the midst of his race for U.S. Senate, it was revealed that he’d exchanged direct messages with an Oregon stripper who had become a follower and fan. Though it never appeared to escalate to anything beyond a couple friendly messages, his spokesman was forced to issue a statement: “The mayor talks with people from all walks of life on Twitter."
His prolific use of social media has also contributed to accusations that Booker lacks substance. It’s a perception Booker has faced throughout most of his career and could very well continue into the 2020 campaign.
But Booker’s long experience with social media could also work to his advantage in a political climate where voters expect to hear directly from their leaders.
“We expect straightforward authenticity from candidates on social media, and playing it too safe means risking being irrelevant and not standing out in a crowded primary field,” said Laura Olin, a digital strategist who previously worked on President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. But on the flip side, “people will penalize candidates who are perceived as trying too hard to come off as someone they’re not,” she said.
It is now de rigueur, of course, for politicians to be present on a variety of social media platforms, meaning Booker also has competition in a space he previously dominated. For example, witness Warren’s aforementioned beer, or this deft tweet by fellow presidential contender Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) welcoming him into the race.
“I think other politicians have caught up to what Booker did as an early adopter, so the bar is higher for Booker himself. In the early days of Twitter, he distinguished himself by tweeting for himself and responding directly to constituents on social media, which no one else was doing back then. Now, plenty of senators and representatives do both,” Olin said.
Of course, the 2010 tweets that brought him viral fame might not be as well suited to the Internet of 2019. “In a time of crisis for the country, I think there’s definitely less appetite for cutesy stuff than there might have been two or four years ago,” she said.
Prognosticators who will follow his 2020 campaign should not mistake enormous social media followings for true political might.
“I have no idea what 4.13 million followers is in terms of votes,” Loge said. “He’s famous. Cool. But you’ve got to be able to turn those 4.13 million followers into people who will knock on doors, people who will put up lawn signs, people who will write checks.”
Booker’s online following has certainly helped get him this far. The question is: Will it help take him even farther?