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August 13, 2015

America’s Next Top Executive

Viral videos are the next stage in the evolution of presidential campaign theater.

Consider this the next stage in the evolution of political theater: The 2016 presidential candidates have been producing short videos in hopes of getting the footage to “go viral,” putting eyeballs on their campaign. Who can blame them? In a crowded field of 17 candidates in the Republican Party alone, gray suits tend to run together. Viral video is a way for each candidate to have a moment — 15 minutes (or 30 seconds) of fame.

What can your candidate do? Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code. Ted Cruz did impersonations of characters from “The Simpsons” and cooked bacon with a gun (bringing a new meaning to the term “pork barrel”). Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, beat the game Operation. Carly Fiorina turned the tables on sexism in the workplace. After Donald Trump gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number in a speech, Graham destroyed the phone with a wooden sword — on camera of course.

With a new generation of voters heading to the polls, candidates face pressure to reach out, to connect with people who are otherwise uninterested in politics. The low-information voter, if you will. And thus begins a chapter of political speech that resembles not so much a Lincoln-Douglas debate as President Camacho from the movie “Idiocracy.”

Sure, some candidates try to sneak in public policy. Bobby Jindal visited the New York City offices of BuzzFeed and produced a video of a push-up contest between him and ObamaCare, taxes, hyphenated-Americans and his own State of the Union response. Paul’s aforementioned video focused on tax code reform. Most politicians, however, appear before the camera just to pull off the stunts, not discuss policy. Besides, it’s tough to be fun, let alone have nuance, when you’re talking about immigration, national debt or education reform.

In reality, this viral video trend is merely a continuation of what political speech has been for the last 50 years, ever since politics migrated to television. In 1964, a 60-second television advertisement that shares similarities with these videos helped incumbent and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson ride to a landside win against Republican Barry Goldwater. The infamous “Daisy” attack ad never mentioned Goldwater’s name. It never explained either candidate’s platform. It merely showed a girl in a field picking pedals off a flower, trying her best to count them. But then her voice is replaced with the countdown. It reaches zero. The girl looks up. The camera zooms in, and BOOM, the screen is filled with a nuclear explosion.

“These are the stakes,” a voice says. “To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

It never says what Johnson would do. There’s no policy or promise, just an emotional punch to the gut.

To a lesser degree, the candidates are using the same strategy, to try and establish goodwill by appealing to people’s emotions, though with a far more lighthearted effort to engage the modern need for quick entertainment.

This trend has not been lost on the folks at The Wall Street Journal and International Business Times. Both publications devoted stories to exploring how the candidates are visiting places like BuzzFeed. As Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, explained to the International Business Times, it’s part of the new media landscape capitalizing on the nature of politics. Smith said, “I think politics has always been a mixture of jokes and ridiculous things and policy and character and war and peace. They’ve always been inseparable, the high and the low.”

Smith told the Journal part of being a modern-day politician includes stopping in at a place like BuzzFeed, in a similar way to how candidates past made appearances on late-night TV shows.

This is all necessary if Hillary Clinton becomes the Democrat nominee for president. In November, just after the Republican Party swept up control of state governments and won Congress, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told ABC News what it would take for a conservative to beat a candidate like Clinton: “If we have a candidate on the ballot who someone actually wants to have a beer with, we can win.”

Of course, viral videos and emotional pleas are all pathos with no logos. What really matters are the policies and character of the candidates. You can’t have a beer with every voter. You can, however, make them a video.

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