Voters swipe right for Wisconsin's state Supreme Court election
When Noah Turecek matched with Kristi Johnston on Hinge, he was immediately suspicious.
From her bio, he could see that Johnston worked at NextGen America, which rang a bell. In 2020, during the presidential election, Turecek had heard about the progressive organization getting out the vote on dating apps. He remembered wondering with friends whether this meant the apps would become overrun with spam.
"The first message of me reaching out was, was she here for a connection or is she here trying to get me to pledge my vote?" Turecek said.
"Which one do you think?" replied Johnston, the press secretary of NextGen and an avid Hinge dater.
In the runup to Wisconsin's pivotal state Supreme Court election, Johnston helped orchestrate a mass-dating event to court young voters. Using Hinge — the only dating app that allows users to change their locations for free — Johnston and around 20 other volunteer daters swiped their way right across the Badger State.
Johnston lives in the Bay Area, but expertly curated her profile to entice Wisconsin matches. In one photo, she dons a Cheesehead hat in a Beyonce-inspired pose. In another, she grins in a Green Bay Packers fleece. There was even a Packers pick-up line: "What if I told you that Aaron Rodgers might leave you, but I never would?"
Turecek, a 26-year-old data engineer, lives in Madison, Wis. That means he votes in a swing state soon to elect a justice to the state Supreme Court. It's the kind of race that doesn't typically register nationally. But this year is different.
In the technically nonpartisan race, the stakes are high. With a conservative justice retiring, the winner will determine the ideological balance of the court: conservative or liberal.
In the coming years, the court is expected to rule on Wisconsin's abortion ban, as well as voting laws and election maps in the battleground state.
That's why traditional tactics aren't enough for traditional voter outreach groups. Many Americans are quick to send "STOP" to a campaign text or hang up on a phone-banker. But on dating apps, it's normal to talk to strangers and forge genuine connections.
"I appreciate how personal it actually is because they're treating me like a human," Turecek said. "Not necessarily just a phone number or someone to call."
'Authentic connection really matters'
William Blathras, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and chairman of Wisconsin College Republicans, is somewhat skeptical of the dating app approach. Still, he said it offers a lesson for conservatives.
"I think authentic connection really matters," said Blathras, who's majoring in political science and history.
When it comes to engaging Gen Z, the 20-year-old said the Wisconsin Republican Party lags far behind Democrats. In last November's midterms, 70% of voters under 30 chose incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over Republican challenger Tim Michels.
For this race, abortion access in Wisconsin is undeniably on the ballot. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the state's 1849 ban went back into effect, outlawing nearly all abortions. Now, a lawsuit seeking to repeal the ban is making its way through the courts. The case is expected to land before the state Supreme Court.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz has campaigned on her support for abortion rights. Former state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly has criticized his opponent's messaging, saying it amounts to a pre-judgment of the case. Kelly, who is backed by anti-abortion conservatives, maintains he hasn't decided how he would rule on the ban.
Blathras knows that his party's anti-abortion stance may be a dealbreaker for younger voters considering joining their ranks. But, going forward, he thinks focusing on other major issues for those voters can be a way to gain their support.
"A lot of conservatives now are more environmentally conservative," he said. "Climate change is something that we can maybe find common ground on. And target that instead of taking the older approach of saying, 'it's not real.'"
Republicans do have a shot with Zoomers. In a recent poll, 30% of Gen Zers said they align with Democrats, while roughly a quarter said they identify as Republicans.
Blathras said that's why the party should invest in young conservatives. It starts with bringing their online presence into the 21st century: He's seen some Wisconsin Republican profiles where "the aesthetic, it's like, your mom's or your grandma's Facebook page."
Gen Z voters are politically up for grabs
That's something Maddie Medved sees a lot. The 26-year-old is co-CEO of Girl and the Gov, a political media company for millennial and Gen Z women. When she consults with candidates and elected officials, it's all about reaching young voters on the right platform. In this election, for instance, TV ad-spending has toppled records.
"Our generation's not really — we're not paying for cable anymore," Medved said. "We're paying for streaming services or we're watching TikToks all night."
Sammy Kanter, Girl and the Gov's other co-CEO, said campaigns often write Gen Z off or fail to make their content accessible.
"The biggest misconception, especially of the older generations, is they think millennials and Gen Zers don't care. They really care," Kanter said. "But if there's not an apparent way to fix problems, or to learn about how to fix them, that's a huge issue. That's the roadblock."
She said North Carolina's Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson gets an A+ for going to the right platform and sharing substantive information with young people. His TikTok account — which he started during his bid for office and now runs from the House — boasts 1.5 million followers. Explainers take the form of snappy, yet often serious, short-form videos.
Medved wants to see more innovation — like the guerrilla dating strategy.
"A lot of campaigns, they have a text message send goal, but it's less about who got engaged, who pledged to vote, who took action from that text," she said. "I think it's become a quantity over quality mindset in some of these organizing tactics."
Organizing a real connection
Johnston, the NextGen staffer and dater, said that's a balance her organization is navigating.
"At the end of the day, we do have a system designed around getting as many young people as we can registered to vote," she said. "But I really don't think we should pass up on this opportunity to engage with young, passionate people who are at the forefront of deciding elections."
Turecek said that before matching with Johnston, he was planning to vote anyway. But he'd fallen behind on the race's latest developments, and the interaction led him to do some research.
"Me getting more information came from just doing background, so that we could have more things to talk about," he said. "It didn't hurt at all that she was pretty cute."
Ultimately, the operation wasn't purely political.
"I would say I'm in love right now," Johnston said. "I'm just so blown away by the niceness of Wisconsin boys. I'm in love with each and every one of them."
She and Turecek are getting drinks on Zoom. And, she's cooking up plans with another match to go to a Packers game. She just needs to book a flight to Green Bay.
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