John Fetterman looks off camera and pulls at the shoulders of his trademark hoodie before a series of images flashes of the Democratic Senate candidate in his scruffy youth — all to the strains of “Teenage Dirtbag”.
To the ordinary TikTok viewer, this is just another in the viral trend of users making home-made videos of their younger selves looking disheveled while Wheatus’s 22-year-old hit single plays.
But for Fetterman, who is locked in one of this year’s most competitive Senate races, it is part of a carefully orchestrated social media strategy that has involved spending $12mn on communications consultancies alone.
Despite health problems that have stopped him campaigning in person, the innovative online playbook has helped propel him into an early lead in Pennsylvania.
“It is fun, but this is also a deliberate strategy,” said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s head of communications. “We have a creative team which is willing to take risks and do things other campaigns might not.”
Fetterman leads his Republican opponent, the television doctor Mehmet Oz, by four points in the polls, making Pennsylvania one of the tightest midterm races in the country, and potentially the one that could decide which party controls the Senate.
It is also the most expensive — both parties have flooded the state with money since the start of the campaign in an attempt to get their message out in unusual ways.
Fetterman is already an unlikely candidate. He is 6ft 8in tall, with a bald head, goatee beard, tattooed arms and a reputation for blunt speaking. He espouses progressive causes such as legalising cannabis, but has also built a blue-collar base of support by focusing on regenerating communities such as his home town of Braddock, where he worked as mayor for 13 years.
His team already wanted to make his campaign as unconventional as the candidate. But when Fetterman suffered a serious stroke just days before winning the Democratic primary, leaving him unable to hit the campaign trail, they were given little choice.
Instead of holding large rallies and events, Fetterman has captured attention mainly through his punchy social media messaging, much of which has taken direct aim at his opponent.
When Oz posted on Twitter a video in a local supermarket complaining about how inflation had made crudités more expensive, Fetterman shared it with the comment: “In PA [Pennsylvania] we call this . . . a veggie tray.”
In July, he posted on Twitter a video of Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, star of the television show Jersey Shore, in which she urged “Mehmet” to come home to New Jersey. “I heard that you moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job,” she said. “But don’t worry, because you’ll be back home in Jersey soon.”
He followed it up with an endorsement video from Steve Van Zandt, the musician and star of The Sopranos television series — another well-known New Jersey celebrity.
“Fetterman is recovering from a stroke, so fighting over social media was his only option,” said Maggie Macdonald, a fellow at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics. “But he’s done it better than I would have thought anyone could do it. If it was not for his social media presence, he would be out of this race by now.”
Calvello said that the tone of the messages came from Fetterman himself. But the campaign has also put together a team of well-paid external communications consultants from firms including The Win Company — to which it has paid $5.8mn, according to public records analysed by the Financial Times — and Middle Seat Consulting, which has received $6mn.
Neither The Win Company nor Middle Seat responded to requests for comment. But Calvello explained that the internal and external teams worked closely together, participating in regular brainstorming sessions in which the young team of advisers is encouraged to think of unusual campaign techniques.
It was a staff member who came up with the idea of paying Snooki to record her message via the Cameo celebrity appearance service, he said. Snooki was not aware of how the message was going to be used, and was paid her regular Cameo fee of $400 to do so.
Meanwhile, the response to Oz’s crudités video came from a genuine reaction from Fetterman, Calvello said. “We told him about Oz’s video, and he said: ‘What’s a crudité? Am I having a stroke symptom?’ When we explained it to him, he said: ‘Oh, a veggie tray!’ And that was the tweet.”
Calvello added that the campaign raised $1mn in the three days after that Twitter post, helping keep its television advertising on air.
Neil Oxman, a Pennsylvania-based political consultant, said: “Fetterman has made himself into a cult figure — he looks unlike anyone else running for office in America. And what he has done in this campaign is hire a bunch of young guys who are media savvy who can translate that on to a telephone or television screen.”
Fetterman’s health has improved in recent weeks, and he has once more begun holding election rallies — though at times his speech has appeared slow and he says his hearing has not yet fully recovered.
Republicans have been infuriated that he has remained competitive in the race even while not campaigning in person.
“John Fetterman sits in his basement and lies to the public about how sick he is,” said Barney Keller, a spokesperson for Oz. “People are starting to catch on.”
Josh Novotney, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania, said: “If Fetterman wins, it will be the craziest thing I have seen in politics for a long time.”