From left: Olivia Ponton, Michael McWhorter, Monica Kim
TikTok (2); Instagram
November 1, 2022 4:12 PM EDT

Influencer Olivia Ponton has modeled for magazines and garnered almost 8 million followers on TikTok, where she posts workout videos, outfit inventories, and clips of herself dancing in crop tops. But the 20-year-old has recently been using her platform to talk about a different topic: according to her Instagram, Ponton thinks “voting is HOT.”

“A handful of races can be the difference between making Roe the law of the land, or a federal abortion ban,” she said in a TikTok video last month, urging her viewers to vote to preserve abortion rights.

Ponton says she’s had something of a political awakening this year and is interacting with her audience in new ways. “When Roe v. Wade came to the forefront, I decided it was time to gain a deeper understanding of what the facts were and how this affects everyone in America,” she said in a statement to TIME. “Now that I have expressed interest, I have seen more people reach out, especially those who align with my views.”

Influencers like Ponton are becoming increasingly important messengers for Democrats this election cycle. Democrats, who are defending slim majorities in the House and Senate, have a history of recruiting celebrities to motivate the base. But these days, fewer young voters are finding their pop-culture idols at the movie theater, instead seeking book recommendations on YouTube, scrolling through viral videos on TikTok, and cheering on their favorite gamers on Twitch. Americans losing trust in institutions are putting more stock in the views of individual creators. Now, the left is trying to meet them where they are.

More political groups and campaigns have created formal influencer strategies this year than ever before, hoping to use content creators to help get out the vote through their well-trafficked platforms. The campaigns’ target audience for their influencer efforts consists of voters whose policy preferences are largely aligned with Democrats, but who are sometimes disengaged from politics, according to several progressive organizers. Among them are young voters, who disproportionately skip voting in midterm elections.

“Especially if you’re trying to reach young people, your best bet for someone seeing an ad is a YouTube ad, maybe, if they don’t have premium,” says 30-year-old influencer Monica Kim. “So if you want to be seen by people, you really do need to be working with content creators.”

Kim is part of BookTube, a YouTube-based community that talks about reading, and identifies herself as a “cozy gaming” vlogger. Her content, broadcast to about 72,000 subscribers on YouTube, showcases pastel knits and babydoll dresses. Over the summer, she made an Instagram post describing how, as part of her “cozy after-work routine” she called her Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, to advocate for the Inflation Reduction Act.

The video was sponsored by Climate Power, a climate communications organization, which launched an in-house influencer program about a year ago. Since September, the organization has partnered with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s group, When We All Vote, to try to boost turnout by reaching young voters where they’re comfortable. Climate Power’s associate director of digital platforms, Kayley Hyde, is in charge of figuring out which influencers to partner with. Even an offhand comment about the weather could be a good indicator that a typically apolitical creator might be interested in a climate message. The creators she has worked with—most of whom are paid and some of whom volunteer—include Kim, a mushroom forager, make-up mavens, and Johnny Harris, a YouTuber who has more than 3 million subscribers and who recently won an Emmy for producing a video about politics for the New York Times.

“I get a sponsorship that I put into every one of my videos,” Harris says. “Usually, I’m just selling someone else’s product that I care about to some degree, but I don’t feel deeply about it. In this case, when [Climate Power came to me], it was an absolute, thumbs-up yes.” In the middle of an explainer about the war in Ukraine he posted at the end of September, Harris spends almost two minutes touting the Inflation Reduction Act as “the biggest, most significant climate impact law” and directing young people to go to votefuture.org, a website Climate Power and When We All Vote launched that lets voters check their registration. “There are a lot of candidates running who don’t care about climate change,” he says in the video. Harris says Climate Power paid him near-market rate for his content.

Typically, campaigns might measure the success of their online get-out-the-vote content by number of views. As modern digital life continues to pulverize attention spans, engagement has become the more relevant metric for organizers working with influencers: calls to elected officials, link-clicks, comments—all signs of interest in voting. “People spend hours and hours watching these people’s daily lives,” Hyde says of influencers. “They trust the people they watch. When you’re paying for an ad placement on an influencer’s content, you’re not paying just for views, which I think is very different for the political space.”

The amount of attention and investment Democrats have given social media influencers has skyrocketed in just a few years, and goes all the way up to the 79-year-old occupant of the Oval Office. Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign had a micro-influencer program that pushed out content through various creators with smaller, deeply engaged followings. In the White House, Biden’s team has continued to connect with social media influencers, setting an example for other Democratic candidates. “There’s that sense that, ‘Okay, if they’re doing it and it’s working for them, maybe we should try it, too,’” says Madeline V. Twomey, who is president of the consulting firm Rufus And Mane and used to work on the Biden campaign’s influencer program.

Working on behalf of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Twomey helped organize a trip to D.C. in October for eight TikTok stars, including Ponton. During the visit, the stars met Biden, former President Barack Obama, and staffers for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), House Democrats’ campaign arm. That meeting marked the DCCC’s first foray into influencer partnership. “This industry looks wildly different than it did two years ago,” says DCCC Digital Communications Director Cara Koontz. “If you want to stay on top, and if you want to hit every voter, then you’ve got to be willing to try the new, innovative thing.”

Juanita Monsalve, the senior marketing and creative director at United We Dream Action (UWDA), agrees. “When you think of Latinx people, they’re jumping into TikTok, they’re jumping into YouTube, at least one time per day,” she says. UWDA, the political arm of an immigrant youth-led network, has been working with influencers since 2020, but is going even further this year. Since August, influencers have partnered with UWDA to recruit volunteers for its “squad,” a group calling and texting voters through Election Day, focusing especially on Arizona, Florida, and Texas. “There has been an increase in our investment here, because we know that these communities are not particularly easy to reach,” says Monsalve.

The environmental group EDF Action began working with influencers for the first time this year as a client of @advocacy, an influencer advocacy studio. Over the summer, EDF Action partnered with TikToker TizzyEnt to tout Democrats’ climate plans. TizzyEnt—Michael McWhorter in real life—is a 45-year-old man with a big beard who jokes that he’s not the stereotypical social media influencer. That hasn’t stopped him from accruing more than 5 million followers and a coveted platform on TikTok by making jokey clips, videos uplifting causes he care about, and exposés about people behaving badly in public. “I wouldn’t promote anything that I don’t believe in,” McWhorter says. “My soul is not for sale.”

NextGen America, a youth voting organization, helped pave the way for influencer work. According to president and executive director Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, Next Gen’s 2020 influencer campaign was three-and-a-half times as cost effective as paid digital advertising for the level of engagement it inspired. NextGen is trying new tactics this year, including working with college athletes to turn out voters on their campuses. As part of its “Hot Girls Vote” initiative, it’s also modeling the work for other organizations; NextGen gave a how-to presentation this summer at the progressive Netroots Nation conference on building a social media influencer strategy.

While Democrats are largely seeking influencers who share their values but don’t always talk about politics, many content creators on the right have built their brands around their conservative beliefs. Media personalities like Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, and Ben Shapiro have attracted millions of followers. Christian Walker, the son of Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, has built an Instagram following several hundred thousand strong while slamming Biden and declaring himself a “free-speech radicalist.”

This election will be the biggest test so far of how much social media influencers can activate voters on the left. NextGen is planning its first-ever influencer impact study after Election Day.

On Friday, Obama ended the week that had begun with the TikToker’s trip to D.C. on the campaign trail in Georgia. “I need you to get off your couch and vote!” the former President said in College Park at a rally for Democrats Senator Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “Put down your phone, and give TikTok a rest, and vote!”

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Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com.

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