Politics

The Library Popularity Index

If the Democratic primary were decided by book copies and holds at American libraries, two unlikely candidates would be front-runners.

A library due date slip stamped with Democratic campaign logos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Michael Burrell/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Forget who won the debate or who’s the real front-runner—which presidential candidate is winning the race among library card holders? Yeah, you read that right: library card holders, aka the people descending on their local libraries for candidates’ books. These readers may not be the loudest constituency, but if they’re willing to wait on a list to get a candidate’s book, there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to wait in line to vote, too. Slate decided to see how the books of the current roster of Democrats running for president are faring at libraries across the land, in a mix of big cities, early-primary states, and battleground counties. Whose books have the longest wait lists, and whose books are collecting dust?

To develop our index, we looked at the number of print copies checked out or on hold around the week of Oct. 7 from the following libraries:

The New York Public Library
The Greater Manchester Integrated Library Cooperative System (New Hampshire)
The Charleston Public Library (South Carolina)
The Erie County Public Library (Pennsylvania)
The Columbus Metropolitan Library (Ohio)
The Hackley County Library (Michigan)
The Des Moines Public Library (Iowa)
The Harris County Public Library (Texas)
The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District
The Maricopa Library District (Arizona)
The Los Angeles Public Library

Beto O’Rourke, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard were not included in the research because they haven’t written recent books closely associated with their campaigns. In cases where candidates had multiple books, we sometimes included more than one.

So what did we learn? Despite hovering around 5 percent in the polls, Mayor Pete rules the library scene: He has a hit on his hands in his book, Shortest Way Home. It’s the political memoir with the most holds and checkouts across the libraries we surveyed. Perhaps library card holders see a kindred spirit in the straight-laced, rule-following, overachieving Midwestern mayor?

But library patrons don’t just see themselves as law-abiding citizens; they also identify as normal people who are getting screwed, or at least it looks that way from the popularity of Andrew Yang’s book, The War on Normal People, the second most popular candidate book in terms of checkouts and holds, and the book that was most underrated by libraries: With 139 percent demand for it across libraries—measured by its holds-to-copies ratio—it’s clear that librarians underestimated the size and intensity of the Yang Gang. Question for further research: Is the Yang Gang big on libraries in general, or did its constituents come out specifically for their boy?

A chart showing that Pete Buttigieg has the most books on hold or checked out.
Chart by Slate. Research by Elena Botella.

She may not have qualified for the most recent debate, but we couldn’t resist including Marianne Williamson in this little project, especially since her renown as a self-help author precedes her presidential candidacy. And it turns out Williamson has the third most popular book overall in her original bestseller, A Return to Love, though her more recent A Politics of Love ain’t doing too shabby at libraries either. Williamson is particularly popular at the New York Public Library, where A Return to Love is the overall most popular Democratic candidate book. They say New Yorkers are a bunch of liberal kooks, and for once, maybe they’re right.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden is especially unpopular in New York and L.A. in terms of print library books. Yikes, but who’s surprised? Worse, across the country, a very low percentage of copies of his books are in use or on hold, a mere 12 percent for Promise Me, Dad and 10 percent for Promises to Keep. This means librarians likely expected people to be way more into Biden than they turned out to be, something they certainly weren’t alone in assuming. Another area where this can be seen: Only Joe Biden’s Promise Me, Dad is in circulation as an e-book or an audiobook in all 50 states.

Some intel that may soothe the hive of the other front-runner: If we look at just the early-primary states, Elizabeth Warren is basically tied with Yang and Buttigieg based on print copies of her book that are in use or on hold.

You might expect a run on Kamala Harris’ books in California, but among library patrons, Harris is not very popular in her home state. Only six of the 112 copies of The Truths We Hold available at the Los Angeles Public Library are currently in use, fewer than a quarter of L.A.’s demand for Mayor Pete’s Shortest Way Home.

Finally, poor Amy Klobuchar never stood a fighting chance: Three of the libraries we surveyed didn’t carry print copies of her book at all, and only 18 of 50 states carried digital copies of her book. Maybe librarians were really not on board with the whole eating-a-salad-with-a-comb thing.