Candidate Fatigue Syndrome

The next crop of presidential candidates is embracing every new social media tool. But is that really a good idea?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush campaigning and taking selfies
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush takes a selfie with supporters on March 7, 2015, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Thursday, Jeb Bush used the video broadcast app Meerkat to live stream his visit to Atlanta to his Twitter followers. Every candidate wants to find a way around the press to speak to voters, and this was immediately heralded as a new way to do just that. It’s not just the mainstream media that Bush is avoiding—it’s also the conservative fire his campaign will draw. The former Florida governor needs a way to mainline information to his supporters to keep them from getting jittery.

For Bush the bigger upside of a performance only viewed by 400 people (many of whom were reporters) was that he looked new and modern. You knew that was the goal when his all-but-declared campaign’s chief strategist Mike Murphy tweeted:

(I don’t think you mean that about Tinder, Mike, regardless of what it did for JFK).

Murphy knows that the press loves to write stories about itself, and in those stories Bush’s use of the new medium reached a wider audience than the one he broadcast to on Meerkat. What it told that more traditional audience was that Bush was not a man of the past from a family of the past. He’s a candidate of the future. That’s why he launched his Right to Rise PAC on Instagram. He’s already in the future right now! Come join him.

The truth is that the candidates are too much with us. Whatever the motivation, whether it’s channeling the message directly to your core fans or making the wider world think you’re a modern whiz, candidates are taking to every outlet to weigh in on this and that. Hillary Clinton fired up the Twitter account the other night to opine about the GOP budget. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sent a selfie and tweaked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over the Green Bay Packers. Sen. Rand Paul regularly trolls Hillary Clinton on Twitter while inhabiting the id of a 17-year-old. This pace is only going to quicken as we get closer to voting time.

Now that candidates are trying to be content providers on so many different channels, the question is whether they will face the same problem with overload those of us in traditional media face. People don’t want to hear from us as often as we arrive in their email inboxes or Instagram feeds with something we find really charming. We all know people who we follow because every second thing they say is interesting or clever, but we are also irritated by those same people because the other half of what they say is either an irritation or an interruption. (Some of those people may very well be the author of this article.)

The challenge is not just the irritation from overload, but that when you talk too much, fewer people listen. As Mat Honan wrote in Wired, this has become an increasing worry for services that want to push new information to people who sign up for their apps. Just because you asked to be pinged by this service doesn’t mean you’ll want to be when the email arrives. 

This happened long ago to President Obama. Structures put in place during campaigns stay in place during the presidency, which means presidential speech becomes threadbare even before the candidate takes office. That is why candidate Newt Gingrich said as president he wouldn’t talk much as president. (It’s also possible this was a prophylaxis meant to assuage those fearful of a voluble Gingrich presidency.)

There are other challenges. The more channels, the more opportunity for the campaigns to occasionally get wound up into madness. The Obama campaign once argued that Clinton’s embellishments about a trip to Bosnia disqualified her for higher office. The Clinton campaign once suggested that because Obama said he wanted to be president in elementary school, it showed how unyieldingly ambitious he was. These are not the gotcha moments created by the press or a waiter with a hidden phone camera. They’re home-cooked, and they get amplified when you have more ways to sound off. You can also become a meme when you’re producing constant content, handing your opponents a chance to mock you with your own product. 

Finally there is the problem of weak content. Candidates want to convey that they are innovative and savvy, but there is nothing disruptive about broadcasting a political speech. It’s just a fancy press release that can quickly feel like spam.

What would truly be disruptive is if a candidate used his ability to broadcast from anywhere in a meaningful way. Let’s see a candidate use Meerkat from the day he spent with unemployed job applicants learning about what it’s like to find work in this economy or the day he spent at the supermarket trying to feed a family of four on a median income. Or maybe someone could use a new medium to explain a policy issue in a way that makes the challenges clearer to voters. Surely there are more clever ways to use the new mediums? If not, we can just wait around for Naked Mole Rat app, the next new digital innovation in the Meerkat mammal group.