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In the age of social media and universal access to information, image has become a huge issue when presenting political candidates to the American public. The democrats will deal with this issue in 2020, as most of the candidates are getting pretty old.
The reason that this is so critical in 2020 is because a candidates image has become significantly more persuasive then their particular views on policy. The 2016 campaign political advertisements were very policy-light. Instead, there’s a catchy slogan or tagline, and the candidate in an inspiring pose to convey a message of power aimed to motivate American voters in a way that policy ideas just don’t anymore. Its been a while since I have seen a billboard or online ad said anything about the economy or foreign policy, for example.
This shift has gradually taken hold since television became a facet in the American household. The importance of being able to see the candidates directly via television still has had a profound impact on public opinion since the 1960 election and continues to make a difference today.
This transition in ideals is massive in that it completely changes the way that candidates conduct their campaigns.
Say what you will about Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but his use of phrases like “crooked Hillary” were incredibly effective in portraying Hillary in a negative light. His constant name-calling and character attacks made her look awful in the public eye.
By contrast, when did Donald Trump ever propose any kind of genuine foreign or economic policy outside of tax cuts and the border wall? Rarely. He knew that this was all about character and appearance and he dedicated the vast majority of his efforts to solidifying his image and destroying Clinton’s.
This all that means 2020 is quite a predicament for the Democrats, as their potential reservoir of candidates suffer from significant weaknesses in how they come across. First of all, they’re all old. In the case of Bernie Sanders specifically, he looks every bit of 76 and way, way more. This shortcoming is echoed among the Democratic leadership, and contributes very heavily to a bad appearance in the eyes of the American public.
The election of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon serves as a great historical example of this notion because, for the first time, a presidential debate was broadcasted on television. Viewers could see what their candidates looked like, in addition to hearing their views on policy and implementation of new ideas for the first time in history.
The general consensus after this debate was that Nixon had won– on radio. The television crowd believed Kennedy won.
This scenario repeated itself in the 2008 election between John McCain and Barack Obama. Nixon and Kennedy had issues with image regarding attractiveness. In 2008, the same problem emerged with the issue of age.
When the time came to focus on just the two candidates after either party’s nomination process, it became very clear, very quickly that McCain came across as a 71-year-old man through the extent of the campaign process. The Democrats seized this opportunity and capitalized on this weakness by presenting Obama as a really young and charismatic guy with every chance that they got. A staggering 66% of voters under 30 sprung for Obama instead of McCain, marking the largest disparity of young voters compared to other age groups since exit polling began in 1972, according to the Pew Research Center, .
This tactic succeeded beyond the highest hopes of the Democrats in swaying certain groups of voters toward the Obama camp’s message of hope and change with a young and radiant leader at the helm.
If the Democrats produce a candidate that comes off as McCain did, and Nixon before him, they may find themselves struggling to identify with certain voting groups come 2020. It’s easy to say, too, that the obvious course of action for Democrats would be to just put up a young candidate.
Every candidate the Democrats could offer in 2020 will have to overcome the effect age has on their appeal, or suffer the same fate McCain did in 2008. Age could be a major issue for the democrats come the next election.
Ryan Tougaw can be reached on Twitter @rjtougaw