mayor pete buttigieg mayo pete sitting with hand on chin tiktok election 2020 bernie sanders elizabeth warren andrew yang panic at the disco high hopes
Chuck Kennedy/Pete for America

Humans and Technology

Even if they can’t vote, teens are roasting Pete Buttigieg on TikTok

No major Democractic candidate has a presence on the wildly popular social video platform. That’s a big missed opportunity.

Nov 19, 2019
mayor pete buttigieg mayo pete sitting with hand on chin tiktok election 2020 bernie sanders elizabeth warren andrew yang panic at the disco high hopes
Chuck Kennedy/Pete for America

Teens on TikTok are dragging presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, calling him “Mayo Pete.” Their popular posts mocking Buttigieg and criticizing some of his policies also function to call out the surprising absence of candidates on the platform.

Introducing: Mayo Pete. TikTok’s latest surge of viral posts is filled with  teens dancing to Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” Buttigieg’s walk-on song at rallies. It’s often accompanied by a slightly cringe-inducing  dance … which makes it pretty much tailor-made for mimicry on the music-driven platform. 

The finishing touch: “Mayo Pete” flashes up, an unsubtle dig at the candidate because he’s white, has had trouble connecting with nonwhite voters, and is supposedly bland like the condiment. The meme seems to have first popped up earlier this year on Reddit among Bernie Sanders supporters and opponents of the mayor in South Bend, Indiana, but has only just caught on with TikTok users. 

TikTok could loom large in the 2020 elections. TikTok is confusing for candidates. Last month, the platform announced that it would not allow political ads—but  candidates are still allowed to have their own profiles and post political content. So there’s an opportunity for campaigns to make their presence known and reach some of TikTok’s approximately 80 million US users. But TikTok’s demographic skews below the legal voting age of 18. The simple political calculation would be that honing a candidate’s image on TikTok for a bunch of people who can’t vote is a waste of time. Seems obvious. But it’s a mistake.

What Mayo Pete can teach us: Just because a sizable portion of the audience can’t vote doesn’t mean that TikTok should be ignored. Viral content has a way of spreading across social-media platforms, and memes hold outsize sway in shaping public opinions and conversations online. Less than a year out from the election, none of the major Democratic candidates have cultivated a presence on TikTok. One media strategist told Vox that candidates could use it to bolster their approachability in much the same way that Instagram videos have redefined access to candidates. It’s also a clear, accessible way for candidates to apologize or clarify errors.

Case in point: Mayor Pete’s social-media snafus. Buttigieg committed not one but two major gaffes in the last few days. Over the weekend, Intercept reporter Ryan Grim reported that a woman in an image included in Buttigieg’s plan for the “empowerment of black America,” the Douglass Plan, was in fact Kenyan. Turns out the stock photo Buttigieg’s campaign used was chosen by a contracting firm “without knowing that it was taken in Africa.” And an Instagram post from 2017 on Buttigieg’s husband’s account recirculated online, showing the candidate posing at a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

Could a TikTok apology have helped? Maybe. A short video post apologizing for the missteps might earn him brownie points with the valuable millennial/Gen Z bloc and show he’s not a caricature. TikTok helps memes go viral, and it could just as easily inject a candidate into the conversation.  In the end, isn’t that what a candidate wants?