26-year-old Josh Perry is the person Ted Cruz trusts most to speak for him online.
Cruz is a possible contender for president in 2016, and the most talked-about politicians on the Web.
Josh Perry is a lanky, 26-year-old from Nederland, Texas with a good job on Capitol Hill and a healthy adoration for Taylor Swift. And every day, he pretends to be Ted Cruz on the Internet.
As Cruz’s in-house digital strategist, it is Perry’s job to channel the freshman senator online, engage activists on Twitter and Facebook and promote Cruz’s media appearances and speeches.
In just a few years, Cruz has gone from working as the state Solicitor General and as a corporate attorney to become one of the most talked-about politicians on the Web. Cruz began traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire in 2013—and his many conservative fans are eager to see him run for president.
Perry joined Cruz in the early days of his Senate campaign in 2011, when Cruz was an unknown candidate with little hope to defeat the establishment-backed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Perry’s responsibilities on the campaign were two-fold: Help manage Cruz’s online presence and drive him to events around the state.
On the day of Cruz’s first debate, Perry was driving Cruz in Houston when he ran a red light while fiddling with a GPS. An oncoming vehicle slammed into the driver’s side of his Dodge Caliber with a brutal crunch. No one was seriously injured, but it left $8,500 in damage to his car.
Perry says he was “unceremoniously promoted” after the accident–to behind a computer.
“It was amazing how quickly we decided I should focus full-time on just the digital stuff rather than driving him around as well,” recalled Perry, who had driven Cruz around the state for ten months.
While Cruz says he’s on Twitter “constantly” through his iPhone, the senator leaves much of the leg work to his old driver, Josh Perry, who condenses the long-winded lawmaker into 140-character bites.
“Out of any staff in the office, Cruz trusts Josh the most with his voice,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told CNN. “Josh understands his voice and understands what he would want to promote.”
According to data from Facebook and Twitter provided to Politico in December, Cruz is mentioned more on social media than any other politician. Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, Cruz’s accounts were mentioned on Twitter, 4.5 million times, which is 1.7 million more than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 2.6 million more than the closest Republican, Rand Paul.
Cruz’s posts on Twitter are routinely retweeted more than 1,000 times apiece, and his Facebook accounts have more than 1 million supporters. Using social media to promote initiatives and connect voters has become a vital part of politicians’ communication strategies in recent years, allowing them to share their message directly with supporters.
READ: It took 22 Romney aides to send one tweet
Cruz’s most popular tweets, unsurprisingly, tend to be when he sounds the most uncompromising. His most retweeted post in 2014 included a call to impeach Attorney General Eric Holder; on Facebook, a joke about President Obama being the worst president in history received nearly 80,000 “likes” and more than 18 million impressions on the site, according to data provided by Cruz office to CNN.
That cohesion between Cruz and Perry dates back to the countless hours the duo spent alone together crisscrossing Texas during the campaign. Perry accompanied Cruz to scores of events and quickly memorized every line of Cruz’s old speeches.
Perry, who prefers to stay behind the scenes as much as possible—he declined to be interviewed on camera–says part of the secret to Cruz’s success online is his willingness to engage on issues that supporters are eager to discuss.
“Half the time if you try to force issues and force messaging that’s not what your activists want to talk about, you’re doing damage to yourself,” Perry said. “If you had somebody who didn’t speak as well [as Cruz] or have the same type of personality, I could see it being a lot more difficult. I think that’s definitely a big part of it. But you’ve also got to know who your audience is and speak to them.”
That approach, however, has left Cruz with a list of enemies in Washington, where some in his own party sees him as a rabble-rouser and an ideologue who refuses to compromise.
“If you’re from Texas, that’s the right thing to do. That’s what they expect you to do,” Perry said.
It’s easy to see why Cruz and Perry get along so well. In college, Perry was a member of the “Young Conservatives of Texas,” a group traditionally known to be more conservative than the College Republicans at the University of Texas in Austin.
As a point of personality, Perry also knows a thing or two about being a troublemaker: Late last year, he logged onto Frazier’s Twitter account when she was away from her desk and posted a string of silly tweets full of emojis and a solicitation of advice for where she could get a good dye job in Washington. “Don’t ever leave your computer unlocked around him,” she tweeted after the prank.
Perry got his start with the Texas Republican Party before joining Austin-based Harris Media, a digital strategy firm founded by GOP strategist Vincent Harris, who directed Cruz’s digital operations until late last year.
Last November, Harris, a digital whiz who deserves a great deal of credit for Cruz’s success online, made a surprise move to work for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a potential future rival if both men run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Perry said he didn’t see it coming.
“We had just been meeting about some of the stuff that we would’ve liked to get done and then it just came out of nowhere,” he said. “It’s been a little interesting since he left to go do Rand’s stuff, but we still talk. We get along fine. No bad blood there.”
In an email to CNN, Harris praised Perry’s work, but predicted that Cruz would face serious competition in the online space if he competes in 2016.
“Josh has always worked incredibly hard and he has done a great job of remembering the importance of engagement when it comes to social,” Harris said. “It has been a space that Senator Cruz has excelled in since 2011 but I’m certain that it’s going to get harder for them as other big names with big brands join the fray.”
While Harris’ departure came as blow to Cruz’s operation, it put Perry in a position to play a stronger role in the senator’s day-to-day online operation.
Cruz’s online break-out moment came in September 2013, when the senator began a 21-hour filibuster in protest of the presidents health care law on the Senate floor.
Not knowing that his boss would remain on the floor for such a long time, Perry manned the Twitter feed through the night. Watching from a TV in his office that broadcast the Senate floor proceedings, Perry spent the night tweeting Cruz’s best lines.
Cruz had mentioned his admiration for how Paul had spent part of his filibuster earlier that year to read tweets from supporters. So before the speech, Perry put out a call on Cruz’s Twitter account asking people to tweet at his account about Obamacare. Perry printed out the best submissions and ran them to the Senate Cloak room near the door of the Senate, where another staffer picked them up and put it in front of Cruz.
“Obamacare,” Cruz said, reading from the tweet on the paper. “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Perry immediately clipped a video of Cruz reciting that quote—a reference to a popular Internet video about a woman who described escaping a fire–from the Senate floor feed, uploaded it to YouTube and tweeted the quote from Cruz’s official account. Today, it has nearly 900 retweets.
Perry remembers the moment fondly as his contribution to American political history.
“No matter what else happens, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’ is in the congressional record because of lowly ol’ me,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the last time Perry would thrust Cruz into the pop culture conversation. Perry is an obsessive Taylor Swift fan—and yes, this began before she branched out from the country music scene, he’ll have you know—and he uses every opportunity he can to incorporate her into his work.
In November, Cruz tweeted an auto-tuned video of Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor who helped construct Obamacare, using the beat from Swift’s “Shake it Off.”
During Cruz’s Senate campaign, Perry made a point to see four Swift concerts in Texas in less than two months. Colleagues say he even logs into Taylor Swift fan message boards, and his personal Twitter page is full of Swift music videos, GIFs and photos.
“I admit I probably like Taylor Swift more than I should,” he said.
His adoration seems to be spreading throughout the Cruz office, where a 2015 Taylor Swift calendar—courtesy of his colleague, Frazier–hangs on the wall. In December, the Cruz staff Twitter account posted a Vine clip from the “Shake It Off” music video of Swift, dancing in a leotard while singing, “Can’t stop cruising…”
When he’s not thinking of Ted Cruz or Taylor Swift, Perry’s head is in space. Perry, a self-declared NASA geek, originally planned to study aerospace engineering in college, but he switched to political science. The shelf near his desk is decorated in toy spaceships that he’s collected over the years, and his personal Twitter page, beneath the bio, “I like space • Life is better in GIFs • Pardon my Texan” is full of pictures of space shuttles (interspersed between Taylor Swift GIFs and emojis.) In early December he even traveled to Cape Canaveral, Fla. to watch the Orion space shuttle launch, which, of course, he live-tweeted.
Perry’s space knowledge may come in handy next year, because Cruz is next in line to be the chairman of the Senate Space and Science subcommittee.
That, however, may not be the most exciting part about Cruz’s year in 2015. Cruz is considered a possible presidential contender, and if he runs, Perry said he believes Cruz’s digital groundwork that has served him so well in Texas would be ready to go national.
“Should it go that way,” he said, “we’d be in a good place to do it.”
And for that campaign—if it happens–Perry won’t be anywhere near a steering wheel.