In a fairer world, we’d all be on novocaine until December 2020.
On Thursday morning, Texas politician and maybe-2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke posted an Instagram story from the dentist’s office. “So I’m here at the dentist,” he explained, after his hygienist removed a pair of tooth-cleaning things from his mouth. O’Rourke’s video was part of his series of Instagram clips highlighting the lives of people in border towns. It was also the latest in a litany of politicians uploading Instagram footage of everyday life in a bid to reach voters where they live: their phones.
This is the future of the 2020 presidential election. As candidates move from real-life rallies to social media blitzes, campaigns are veering ever further into the realm of infotainment. Americans never log off, so neither will our politicians.
O’Rourke’s livestream was admirable in principle. His hygienist Diana described growing up on the border to an immigrant mother. “It’s a beautiful community,” she said of life in El Paso. “We all support each other, we all love each other.”
The American Dental Association said livestreamed dentist visits were optional.
“The ADA recommends everyone visit a dentist regularly and we’re happy to see former Rep. O’Rourke is doing that today!” the ADA told The Daily Beast. “Instagramming from the dentist, however, is a personal preference.”
Diana’s message was nice, but not one that needed to be prefaced by close-up footage of O’Rourke’s gums.
The teeth video wasn’t Beto’s first experiment with hyper-casual videos. During his close senate race against Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O’Rourke uploaded frequent videos of him discussing his policies while going through the drive-thru, getting gas, and going for jogs. The tactic helped him pull in a record fundraising windfall.
Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also pioneered the genre, leading question-and-answer sessions on Instagram Live while she makes dinner. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the first major Democrat to announce a 2020 presidential bid, recently jumped on the trend with live videos from her own kitchen. The videos double as free advertising that reach voters on their phones, without going through the press’s filter.
But a sudden rush of extremely online candidates could leave some politicians oversharing. When everyone is uploading folksy videos from their kitchens, it takes an otherwise questionable Teeth Video to cut through the noise.
Crowded campaign fields have previously led candidates to make baffling social media decisions. In 2015, then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced his late arrival to the Republican primary via hidden camera footage of him talking to his children. The audio was muffled, and the visual partially obscured by a tree. It was an abjectly weird choice of campaign announcement, except in its ability to stand out from the 13 prominent Republicans who had already declared their presidential bids.
Hillary Clinton also went viral for an insufficiently casual social media video. During a visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Clinton uploaded a Snapchat video of her saying “I’m just chillin’ in Cedar Rapids” in an awkward cadence.
It was only natural for Clinton to sound unnatural; in her late sixties, she probably wasn’t a Snapchat poweruser. But her relatable experience of fumbling with a new app translated into an image of stiffness and unrelatability online. The clip quickly became a meme.
During the 2016 election, I was among what I imagine were only a handful of people to diligently watch every clip Republican candidate John Kasich uploaded to Snapchat. There was something powerfully lonely about the clips, which were often uploaded sideways or with limited context, perhaps by a junior aide following halfhearted instructions to “increase voter engagement” or something, with the understanding that few people would ever tune in. In attempt to boost morale, I sent the Kasich Snapchat team some drawings.
Kasich’s social media team can’t have been very busy, either, because they took the time to respond to some of the pictures I drew for them. “That's a very good picture,” they told me.
Maybe that was real authenticity: some unknown staffer graciously replying to a heckler on a social media platform that was designed for nudes, not national campaigns. The Kasich Snapchat campaign was funny because it was futile.
That was then. Today’s top contenders run slick digital campaigns, honed for virality. And they’re effective. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump attracted a disproportionate share of media attention, due in part to his inflammatory tweets. O’Rourke gave us high-definition footage of his gums and this is an article about it.
As more candidates declare, and voters further entrench themselves in social media, we’re doomed to see more digital stunts. But just like a patient at the dentist, maybe it’s time for oversharers to close their mouths a little.