Consumers are used to having choices —and this cycle they expect the same of their Presidential candidates
American politics often involves picking the lesser of two evils: voting against the candidate you dislike the most, rather than for one you actually like. Nowhere is this more true than in the Presidential race, where due to the distorted effects of the primary system campaigns must appeal to voters in early states like Iowa or New Hampshire as well as the general electorate.
Yet increasingly this phenomenon of trying to present candidates with the broadest appeal is at odds with a media culture that allows consumers to curate their music, movies and tv shows to their own unique tastes. Gone are the days of the primetime sitcom that everyone watched together. Instead, consumers increasingly have access to hundreds of thousands of movie titles, tv shows and songs, including content curated to tastes for which there might not have previously been a big enough market.
American politics has long been about voting no: in a two party system voters are often left voting against the candidate they like least. But with the proliferation of consumer choice when it comes to media, food, and more, voters want to be able to vote yes.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that 2020 has seen a staggering umber of Democratic primary candidates, and that 2016 saw a large number of Republican candidates. The same advances in technology that have created a demand and expectation for tailored content are also providing the platform to launch non-traditional campaigns. Despite being a long shot candidate, Sanders used social media and technology, as well as small dollar donors to almost grab the nomination in 2016, and is poised again to potentially take it in 2020. Niche message candidates who run purely to highlight a single issue have long been with us, but in the modern era a candidate like Andrew Yang has staying power. It’s hard to imagine a candidate like Buttigieg, mayor of a South Bend Indiana, even warranting a mention ten or twenty years ago.
Not only have niche candidates had greater staying power, but those with broad appeal have gotten less mileage from it. Like Clinton in 2016, Biden entered the race as the heir apparent by virtue of his establishment credentials and his position in the Obama White House. Yet in today’s politics the mantle of inevitability is no longer the boon it once was: Biden’s number’s haven’t really moved as the primary season progressed. Rather than coalescing around a single candidate, voters have continued to play the field searching for the right fit. If anything, 2020 has been the cycle of FOBO, or fear of someone better. Already, we have had several candidates get in late with Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg both entering the field because they saw an opportunity not being met (though they are self funding).
It’s no longer enough to just appeal to the broad center — to be the mainstream candidate. As American culture has balkanized, so to has its tastes and its expectation to be a curator. Candidates need to be more.