To understand why Mexican cellphones were suddenly filled one day with cringeworthy TikTok videos of electoral candidates emerging from a coffin, dancing like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding and generally making fools of themselves, it is necessary to travel to the north of the country.
Mariana Rodríguez, a 25-year-old social media influencer and wife of the recently elected governor of Nuevo León, Samuel García, has achieved what no other political or institutional apparatus in the history of Mexico has ever managed: to create an elected official on the basis of social media “likes.” Rodríguez, unlike the other candidates who desperately attempted to follow her lead despite lacking the most basic understanding of how such tools work, was like a duck to water, her image alone capable of mobilizing thousands of followers who would become voters, and she clearly understood the importance of converting García’s candidacy into a reality show. And it is Rodríguez, not García, who has dramatically revolutionized the playing, and winning, of politics in Mexico.
The most-repeated slogan of García’s campaign was “the political old guard must be overthrown.” The policies of the 33-year-old Citizens’ Movement candidate were not ground-breaking, but what was is the way thousands of voters have had a peek inside his home life, have danced to reggaeton in the streets with him and his wife and, when she decided the time was right, have poked fun at him. “Fosfo, fosfo [from the shortened fosforescente]” has now entered the vernacular in Mexico’s northeast after Rodríguez posted a video on Instagram in which she completely ignored her husband in order to show off her new fluorescent sneakers. She understood perfectly that the importance did not lie in García announcing his schedule for the day, but in looking the other way, in the direction of the banal, the absurd, the very origin of the meme.
And Nuevo León was plastered with memes, jokes and massive events aimed at a young, millennial audience that ended up also netting thousands of older followers. Many were genuinely amused by the campaign, unlike the lamentable spectacle of those who attempted to forcibly position videos on social media, while only serving to alienate themselves further. Before she took on the political old guard, Rodríguez was selling her own line of cosmetics and hundreds of other products through her Instagram account, which has 1.5 million followers. Selling her husband was the logical next step.
The joke swiftly became a crushing reality for her opponents. García doubled his share of voter intention from 13% in just two months, according to EL PAÍS polls. He also benefited from the unraveling of National Regeneration Movement (Morena) candidate Clara Luz Flores’ campaign following accusations she was involved with the NXIVM cult, whose leader has been convicted in the US on charges including sex trafficking and racketeering. Although his only other genuine rival, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Adrián de la Garza, pushed him to the finish line, it was not sufficient to derail García, who was proclaimed the winner and the new governor of Nuevo León on June 7 with an almost 10-percentage point advantage.
Underestimating Rodríguez’s ability to mobilize voters was an error that other politicians in the future will learn from, particularly in view of the 2024 presidential elections, and García’s victory has more to do with the work of his wife than any politician will openly admit. Some of her rivals only became aware of the risk when it was already too late. Complaints about Rodríguez were brought before the National Electoral Institute due to her stories on Instagram, which featured products made by local vendors that people brought to campaign rallies. Four parties asked that these be considered campaign expenses incurred by García and it remains in the hands of a court to decide if this unregulated new electoral strategy constituted fraud.
Rodríguez imperiously turned the tables in an Instagram post. “You already know that the political old guard has been going at us hard for weeks and now it’s my turn… and although we are fighting in the courts, I will no longer be able to help you with your products, which makes me angry but you can see that these parties do not care about hurting whoever they can in whatever way they can.” The result: almost a million views and 3,000 comments, the majority of them supporting Rodríguez. The old guard and the most basic laws are suddenly finding themselves in completely uncharted territory.
This is not the first time that a politician has ascended to power through his wife’s public image. Mexican broadcaster and cultural giant Televisa was well aware of the potential of these mechanisms at the dawning of the social media age. In 2012 one of Televisa’s biggest stars, Angélica Rivera, who nobody calls by her real name but instead that of her on-screen persona La Gaviota, made a splash on the political scene alongside her then-husband, Enrique Peña Nieto, who was elected president the same year. At PRI rallies it became difficult to distinguish who was there to meet La Gaviota and who was there to meet Mexico’s next president, who represented the return to power of the traditional electoral powerhouse after 12 years of National Action Party (PAN) rule. Shortly after his departure from office in 2018 the tabloid press reported the inevitable: Rivera had filed for divorce.
As them, Rodríguez and García form a partnership that mirror the aspirations of thousands of voters: so white, so rich, so “authentic,” even it is only virtual. They are an irresistible product even for their detractors. Everybody laughed at García when he laid bare the most tragic episode in his life during an interview with another influencer: when his father made him play golf at 6am and he was unable to spend Saturday in peace with his hangover. He received his harshest criticism when, during another interview with his wife, he asked Rodríguez to lower her knee because she was “showing too much leg.” Labels of “daddy’s boy” and “chauvinist pig” that would have cost any other candidate a few points in the polls were capitalized upon by his social media-savvy wife.
Rodríguez and García met while on holiday in Puerto Vallarta in 2015. At that time she was making her first forays into the world of the influencers and he was a local representative in the State Congress of Nuevo León. Rodríguez said in an interview with Quién magazine that what caught her attention about García was that he was “very loud.” On the day they met he was arguing on the phone because, according to Rodríguez, “they wanted to remove him as a deputy because of gender equality issues.” García’s overt sexism has seemingly not cost him a single vote – quite the opposite in fact – in a traditionally very conservative state. One day in Puerto Vallarta, Rodríguez was with her family and friends, walking a pet rabbit on a leash. García used the animal as an excuse to make an approach and asked Rodríguez for her Facebook account. A few days later he asked her out on a date. Four years later, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, they were married at a ceremony at which guests did not wear face masks.
The “Mariana Formula” for winning elections has transformed the traditional political landscape in Mexico. And all indications are that the effective use of social media will be a potent weapon wielded by presidential election hopefuls in 2024. The attempts of many politicians to ride the wave at the 11th hour has resulted only in a trace of ridicule being left for posterity – imprinted on the collective memory via the Twitter account Out of Context Candidatos – and it marks only the beginning of a new era. The ultimate marketing goal of the influencers to convert themselves into an aspirational desire – for people to want to look like them, to want what they wear, what they eat, what they sell – launched García to new heights through his wife. The idea of a politician as a product, a meme or a joke has taken hold in northeastern Mexico and delivered a curve ball to the unshakeable electoral strategies of the traditional parties. “Overthrowing the old guard” was exactly that.
English version by Rob Train.