In late June, John Fetterman posted a photo of an edited Hawaii driver’s license, in which the state was blurred out to read “Pennsylvania,” and the picture was replaced with Dr. Mehmet Oz’s face next to the name “McLovin.” He captioned the photo with only one word—“giggle”—and an emoji of a face laughing with a hand over its mouth.
The meme, a reference to the raunchy 2007 film Superbad, in which a teenager gets a fake Hawaii ID to buy drinks under the name “McLovin,” was a dig at his Republican opponent’s residency and the latest in a series of posts seemingly aimed at Fetterman’s younger, more online base.
While Senate hopefuls like Fetterman generally refine their social media to include an array of generic political touchstones in 280 characters or less, the Democratic nominee from Pennsylvania has recently flooded his accounts with memes that look straight out of a Gen Z playbook.
Oz has become the most frequent punchline.
In one post, Fetterman responded to an article about Oz spelling his Pennsylvania hometown wrong on his statement of candidacy by posting a widely used photo of a middle-aged man dressed as a skater-boy teen, with bold, white letters reading “How do you do fellow [Pennsylvania] residents,” plastered on top.
Another showed a picture of a woman shouting while pointing her finger with the caption, “Dr. Oz: I’m totally a PA resident.” Next to her was a scoffing, displeased-looking cat labeled “PA voters.”
Though Fetterman never kept the same sort of polished social media presence that other politicians do, a review of his tweets since winning the Democratic nomination on May 17 show he pivoted to the recent bout of outright memes in mid June.
And though he’s posting most of his memes without directly tagging Oz, he’s nailed a few ratios on the former television host, meaning positive interactions with Oz’s tweets were outnumbered by negative engagements from Fetterman or his fans. A tweet by Oz in June asked, “Who do YOU trust to fix Pennsylvania? #TeamOz.” There were more than 22,000 responses, most from Fetterman’s online army trashing the Republican Senate hopeful.
Fetterman later responded to Oz’s post with a fake “congratulations” certificate, like one you’d hand to a preschooler. “Presented to Dr. Oz for that sweet ratio of your tweet,” it read. “You did it!”
Fetterman’s Instagram and Facebook are getting the meme treatment, too. Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello told The Daily Beast the recent uptick in memes began with Fetterman himself, who has personally created some of the memes, while others have been generated by staff.
Elizabeth Spiers, a Democratic digital strategist and founding editor of the punchy news site Gawker, told The Daily Beast there can be merit in the use of memes as a political messaging tool, stating, “The advantage of using them in the way that [Fetterman] is is just that it helps the message propagate more organically.”
Memes are less dry than typical political posts and are cheap to make, Spiers noted. And they’re easy to digest, so long as you understand the relevant context.
Spiers did add that using memes, if done successfully, would be part of a larger arsenal of messaging tools. “Voters also want to see some more traditional messaging because they want some assurance that he’s serious and, you know, it’s not just entertainment.”
Ioana Literat, an associate professor at Columbia University who studies online political expression, told The Daily Beast she believes the use of memes goes with Fetterman’s “personal style” and “paints him as an everyman that is in touch with pop culture.”
Literat cautioned that at times, using memes can be a risky move for candidates, with younger people who tend to drag older social media users for trying to seem hip or cool. But in her assessment, Fetterman, 52, is managing to avoid that.
Hilary Nachem Loewenstein, a senior director at the Democratic strategy group Bully Pulpit Interactive, said simply, “The matchup is one that I don’t even think the best writers in Hollywood could have predicted, and so Fetterman is using all of the material against Dr. Oz that he should be.”
But the memes aren’t just a means to bolster Fetterman’s normal-guy brand. They also mark a shift in Fetterman’s tone toward his opponents while inching closer to the general election.
In Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary, Fetterman largely avoided going negative on his opponents. Even as fellow Democratic challengers Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta attempted to strike at Fetterman’s apparent weaknesses, he made a point to stay positive, likely due to his already commanding lead in the primary lineup.
But with Oz, Fetterman is coming out swinging—online, at least.
But for voters in Pennsylvania, those posts, alongside a slew of campaign advertising, might be all they’ve seen from Fetterman in weeks.
Since suffering a stroke on June 3, Fetterman’s time on the campaign trail has come to a screeching halt. Though he’s posted online while out for date nights with his wife, Gisele, or on other small occasions, Fetterman hasn’t been running the same back-to-back circuit of events he did in his primary.
When news of Fetterman’s stroke originally broke, he faced some criticisms for not being entirely forthright about the cause. He originally said it was due to atrial fibrillation—a sort of irregular heartbeat—but a note from his doctor later unveiled it was a combination of A-fib and cardiomyopathy, in addition to stating that he’d not been taking his prescribed heart medication and had not been to the doctor in five years.
But he’s avoided significant backlash in the weeks since as Democrats in the state await his public return to the trail. Calvello said Tuesday that Fetterman is feeling better by the day and is close to a more regular return to the campaign trail. Fetterman does have a fundraiser scheduled for July 21, which could be his first major event in weeks.
Oz, meanwhile, has been working the general election grind, crisscrossing across the state in an attempt to woo voters. But it’s unclear how much that’s working, as a recent poll showed Oz with a -33 points favorability rating compared to Fetterman, who had a +10 favorability rating.
As for the memes, Oz seems unfazed. His campaign spokesperson, Brittany Yanick, told The Daily Beast, “No amount of memes will distract Pennsylvanians from the paychecks, safety, and job security stolen from them by the radical Biden-Fetterman agenda.”
And on his own social media, Oz isn’t deviating from the political norm. But he does appear to be struggling with negative engagements, with Fetterman fans and Democrats commenters consistently latching on to his replies by the thousands, even when Fetterman himself isn’t chiming in.
On July 1, Oz tweeted, “FRIDAY FACT: John Fetterman is wrong for Pennsylvania. He is an undeniably Socialist Democrat that supported AOC, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.”
The tweet drew in almost 11,000 replies. One comment from Jorts the Cat, an account personifying a viral real-life feline, read, “You’re a hollow TV shill and a national embarrassment. Leave Pennsylvania alone you depraved snake oil ghoul.”