Biden wants to woo TikTok creators. But posting him comes at a price.

Biden wants to woo TikTok creators. But posting him comes at a price.

One rainy day this spring, a dating influencer, a “Dance Moms” cast member, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, and three other social media content creators gathered at a five-star hotel facing New York’s Central Park to advise the Biden campaign on one of its biggest problems: how to persuade young people to vote for the president.

Biden’s granddaughter, Finnegan Biden, asked the influencers - who boast nearly 30 million combined followers across TikTok and Instagram - for their tips. Olivia Ponton, 22, a model and TikTok star, suggested that the campaign should try to be relatable and genuine, and to share facts about the election so viewers can educate themselves. Another influencer, 23-year-old dancer and author Chloe Lukasiak, suggested the campaign simplify explanations of the voting process to make participating more palatable and appeal to young voters’ personal experiences and vulnerability.

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Just as Deja Foxx, 24 - a creator focused on reproductive health and the only attendee whose content is focused on politics - suggested that the campaign help build activists’ digital skills, the president himself entered the room.

Biden praised his granddaughter, asked the influencers to introduce themselves, and left the creators star-struck.

The president’s personal engagement with a handful of 20-something social media influencers underscores his and his campaign’s imperative to forge deeper connections with young voters, as polls show his margin of support with the age group has dropped significantly since 2020, when they were key to his win. In interviews and polls, young voters frequently cite Biden’s age, concerns that he has not delivered on key campaign promises around issues like student debt, and frustration with his support of Israel as reasons the campaign must do more to shore up their support this time around.

Biden’s faltering performance at the first presidential debate last month has also cast uncertainty on the future of his campaign, renewing concerns among some voters about his ability to defeat former president Donald Trump and serve another four years in office. In recent days, Democratic leaders have pointed to Vice President Harris as a potential successor should Biden end his reelection effort, but Biden has vowed to remain in the race.

But the courtship between the campaign and influencers is more complicated than any typical brand deal. While all of the content creators who attended the roundtable and a following fundraiser who spoke with The Washington Post said they plan to vote for Biden, some described intense backlash for posting any content about him and concerns about losing followers over their support.

Even among the carefully curated group of influencers, some expressed disapproval of some of Biden’s policy positions, such as his support of Israel amid high civilian casualties in Gaza or legislation that would ban or force the sale of TikTok - underscoring the campaign’s challenge in leaning on creators to use their platforms to amplify Biden’s reelection pitch to new, younger audiences.

After Biden’s stop by the meeting, campaign staff and the roundtable participants - also including Kalen Allen, Anna Kai and Clarke Peoples - walked to Pebble Bar, where they joined 18 other creators to sip champagne and espresso martinis and network over chips topped with caviar. The larger group included food influencers, Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby and celebrity serenader Harry Daniels. Then the whole group moved to neighboring Radio City Music Hall for a glitzy star-studded fundraiser with Biden and Presidents Clinton and Obama. Regular attendees paid up to $500,000 to attend; the influencers got in free.

The Biden campaign and White House have hosted briefings and roundtables for content creators around topics such as reproductive health and events like the State of the Union, giving influencers face time with top surrogates - like Obama, who made a direct appeal to creators to use their platform at an event in Los Angeles last month - and Biden and Harris.

The campaign hopes the roundtable and similar efforts will help build relationships with potential surrogates who they can tap as messengers in the coming months to reach broader audiences than a campaign social-media account can on its own. The two dozen attendees of the Radio City event have a total audience of 85 million followers - many individually boast more TikTok followers than the president’s account - and were neither paid to attend nor required to share it on their socials.

Young people have also increasingly turned to social media for their news, with a third of adults 18-29 saying that they regularly get their news from TikTok. Both the Biden campaign and Trump have joined the platform in recent months, with Trump quickly surpassing Biden’s number of followers and likes. Positive engagement for the Biden campaign has trailed Trump’s - between January 2023 and the end of April 2024, there were roughly twice as many pro-Trump posts as pro-Biden posts on TikTok, according to a TikTok official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal metrics.

“I cannot sit here and try to convince people to vote [for Biden], he’s literally trying to put me out of a job,” said Jae Gurley, 24, a Black and transgender beauty and fashion creator who attended the fundraiser, referring to legislation Biden signed in April that would ban or force the sale of TikTok. Trump recently promised he would not ban the platform, despite attempting to do so while president.

Gurley said she plans to vote for Biden and feels it’s important for her community to know where she stands politically, but is unable to actively encourage her supporters to back Biden. She posted a “get ready with me” video ahead of the event, but did not post a recap of the event after seeing other creators face criticism, particularly over Biden’s support of Israel, after posting about it.

“It is putting our brand on the line,” said Gurley, who noted she avoids mentioning politics in the hooks of her videos to avoid unwelcome criticism from non-followers. “You cannot talk in regards to the Biden administration without acknowledging what is going on in Gaza.”

Gurley said attending the fundraiser, which was repeatedly interrupted by pro-Palestine protesters, hadn’t made her more inclined to support Biden, and that it seemed more like an anti-Trump rally than an event that offered people an affirmative reason to vote for Biden.

“You don’t need to tell me how bad Trump is. I know that, you don’t think I know that?” she said, pointing to her concerns over access to health care as a trans woman under a Trump administration. “You need to tell me how great you are, so I can go and convince other people to, because people my age do not want to vote for you.”

Lukasiak, who has more than 8 million followers on Instagram and more than 4 million followers on TikTok, attended both the fundraiser and the small roundtable, and posted a photo of her and Finnegan Biden from the event on Instagram.

The photo was inundated with comments critical of Biden, and for a time removed from her page until The Post inquired about its deletion.

Lukasiak said when she posted it, she “knew there would be intense disagreement with my opinions” but felt more confident advocating politically this cycle after graduating college and getting more involved than she was in 2020, when she also spoke with Finnegan Biden. She said she is planning to vote for Biden “because he more closely resembles what I look for in a leader than the other candidate.”

“Just because I support one candidate doesn’t mean I completely agree with every policy or every action they’ve taken,” she noted. “I would never pressure my audience to vote one way or another, but I will be advocating for Biden. And I think obviously that will draw some hate, but I hope in the end it just empowers people to care about politics.”

Some creators looked to minimize any potential controversy resulting from associating with the president.

“Anything you talk about, you’re going to get feedback,” said Ponton, who has 3 million followers on Instagram and 7.7 million followers on TikTok. “I don’t really look at it. I just want to share the information and people will take it as they please.”

Ponton, who previously was invited to the White House and met Biden, cited reproductive rights as a top reason she is supporting him in November. When asked if there are any areas where she disagrees with the president or his policies, her publicist interrupted the conversation to request to skip the question.

She plans to encourage her followers to vote, regardless of which candidate they’re supporting, by “being relatable and just telling people - giving them just the straight information that they need, and saying this is what is on the line.”

Some creators at the fundraiser, like Jeremy Jacobowitz, 37, a New York City-based food influencer, decided to directly engage with critics in his comments and defend Biden. He asked one commenter, who said Biden is “a walking corpse being controlled by squirrels,” if they had watched the State of the Union.

He said he loses thousands of followers after posting about Biden, but that his political posts get better engagement than his typical food content.

“I do not care,” Jacobowitz said of the pushback. “If all I ever do is tell people where to eat a cheeseburger, I think it’s a complete waste.”

Foxx, who previously worked on influencer and surrogate strategy for Harris’s presidential campaign, described the negative comments that creators may receive after posting about Biden as the latest forum for young voters to tell the campaign what they care about and said the campaign should be receptive to that feedback.

She said she offered the campaign some specific advice: train political organizers to create content, rather than focusing on getting creators more involved with politics. Influencers would still have a role, she said, and could work with organizers and help teach activists new digital skills and storytelling.

“I am a true believer that in this moment, it is easier to make a content creator out of an activist than to make an activist out of a content creator,” she said.

She plans to vote for Biden in November, but she said she still needs to see more from his campaign before using her platform to support him.

“If they are going to ask those career content creators to go out there and be surrogates for them, that is a big ask,” Foxx added. “They really need to prep and train those people for the pushback they’re going to receive.”

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Drew Harwell and Shane O’Neill contributed to this report.

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