The 2020 Election: Close-Reading Candidate Announcement Videos

May 18 · 17 min read
From “Eisenhower Answers America” (1952), the first televised political ad.

Candidate announcement videos can be among the dullest artifacts of an election, usually generic aerial shots of Iowa corn fields and small Midwestern towns, The Candidate striding boldly down a street or onto a stage, their gaze pointed up and outward as they spout via a voiceover various platitudes about freedom and democracy and whatever else happens to be the buzzword of the day. Yet a campaign announcement video can also tell us a lot about how a candidate seeks to frame themselves, what issues they’re going to emphasize (if they emphasize issues at all), how they present themselves to the public, everything from the lighting to the font to the choice of background music suggesting a feeling they’d like associated with their campaign. So in this post, the second in my new “column” on the 2020 election (read my first post for a sense of my biases and why I’m debasing myself by becoming a political pundit), I’m going to close-read the campaign announcement videos of the major 2020 candidates. Because there are now 23 declared candidates, I’m not going to look at everyone’s video (even I don’t have that much time, or interest) and so I’m defining “major candidate” as anyone with a 2% average in the polls — yes, yes, I know, last week I went on about how polls are less important than narratives, but polls have to be useful for something, and if a candidate polling less than 2% now ends up becoming a serious contender for President then polling is even more useless than I argued last week and we may as well do away with the whole charade of it. No, I’m going to take a risk here and gamble that it’s going to be one of the seven candidates below who will end up becoming the Democratic nominee and not one of the other fifteen whose videos I decided not to watch.

So, let’s proceed then, in the order each candidate joined the race:

ELIZABETH WARREN

I’m going to do Warren a favor here and begin with the video that announced her exploratory committee in January and not the unfortunate Native American DNA test video she released back in October (even though the latter issue did to a great extent define the narrative of her early campaign, managing to upset not only people on the right but also the liberal identity politics crowd). To Warren’s credit, since that blunder, she’s redefined herself as the “policy” candidate by regularly releasing bold and substantive proposals (often on this very platform) on everything from breaking up tech companies to student loan forgiveness.

In her announcement video, Warren begins by speaking directly to the camera about how the promise of America means that if you “work hard” and “play by the rules” you should be able to take care of yourself and your family, a general principle that’s layered over clips of Warren’s own kids and grandkids, a clear way to signal that Warren’s aiming her campaign at the honest, middle-class American. She then pivots to a personal story about her own family, complete with black and white clips and photos from over the years, an effective way to simultaneously inform viewers about her working class roots and her own successful career (public school teacher, law professor, Senator). This, though, is all just to set up her primary argument, which she introduces about a minute into the video with a graph of declining middle-class income — while her family was able to achieve middle-class prosperity and upward mobility, families today no longer have those same opportunities. She follows this up with a graph comparing black and white household wealth, adding a racial dimension to her economic argument.

The graphs, I think, are a bold but effective choice in a campaign announcement like this: they’re on screen only briefly but long enough to be understood, as the meaning of the lines declining as the years go on becomes obvious to any viewer, even if you only glance at the x and y axes. The use of a graph also points to Warren’s credentials and reminds us of her ability to understand complex issues like macroeconomic trends. To put it simply, it’s “professorial,” but in a good way. Finally, the somber piano music that plays underneath all of this only adds to this melancholy note — it’s not the upbeat music we’ll see in some other campaign announcements, and while it might feel like a downer, it’s a way to speak emotionally to the Americans who might not be feeling very upbeat about their economic futures.

Warren then turns to describing the causes of middle-class decline, a concise but effective argument about Wall St. greed and deregulation, with clips of Reagan and Bush signing bills to highlight the Republicans’ central role in causing this decline. It’s interesting that she doesn’t show clips of Clinton or Obama, even though their neoliberalism was as deregulatory as Reagan and Bush, Clinton especially, with NAFTA and welfare reform and the elimination of Glass Steagall — but of course, this is how Warren is subtly positioning herself differently than Bernie: she’s a Democratic through and through and while she will push the party on economic issues, she will generally not aim her criticisms at other Democrats.

Warren’s video then continues by describing how she got involved in politics after the financial crash of 2008 and then describes her various successes as a Senator— but here is where, I feel, the video begins to lose me and points to a larger problem with what is otherwise an effective campaign announcement: 4 minutes and 29 seconds is simply too long. The dramatic music that’s been building up as Warren intercuts clips of her in front of crowds with shots of Trump and Steve Mnuchin and talks about the power of working people to fight back starts to lose its tension when you realize there’s still a whole minute and a half to go. Even I skipped ahead at this point, and I’m actually taking the time to watch it and write an article about it. Still, perhaps this can ultimately be an asset to Warren — few people will watch to the end of her video, just as few people will read the full text of her policy proposals, but it’s a comfort to know that the extra minutes and pages are there, a sign that Warren is a thorough politician who will think about the things that you and I don’t have the intellect or attention span to think about.

Thus, close-reading Warren’s video makes clear just how she’s framing her presidential run: economic issues will be the central pillar of her campaign, she’ll lean into her biography and her credentials as a professor and Senator, and she’ll present her ideas with an exhaustive thoroughness.

KAMALA HARRIS

The next major candidate to announce was Harris, whose video could not be more different from Warren’s: only 57 seconds long, with bright colors, quick cuts, and upbeat music, in contrast to Warren’s somber piano and collage of old clips. Most fundamentally, Harris doesn’t center her video on one issue like Warren but keeps it broad, vague, and about “values,” as she calls them.

She thus begins with these broad “values,” words like “truth,” “justice,” and “freedom” which flash onto a background of shifting colors. The colors are interesting, bright, Millennial-friendly pastels, purple, red, and yellow, signifying a kind of hip youthfulness, rather than the traditional reds, whites, and blues one comes to expect from campaign videos. The font, too, feels modern, a bold all-caps sans-serif. Still, there’s something about the aesthetic of this, the way the words flash around the screen, the poppy musical beat in the background, and the utter substanceless vacuity of the sentiments that makes the whole thing feel too much like a product advertisement, like something I’d see on Hulu that’s about to try and sell me a Toyota Corolla. The words she chooses also aren’t as telling as one would think — most of them are just generic political buzzwords, and the only one that really stands out is “decency,” a clear way to signify opposition to Trump.

Beyond this, the video is just a generic intercutting of The Candidate with “ordinary Americans” and a vague emphasis on “lifting voices” and “fighting.” It feels too focus-grouped and corporate, and it’s ultimately so generic that it tells us nothing about who Harris is and nothing about what issues she’ll make her priority. What it does tell us though is exactly the kind of campaign she will run — an unspecific campaign, full of vague promises, light on the issues, heavy on the polish. The question is, will it really be enough? (Answer: No, and the fact that Warren is doing better than Harris in the polls proves that maybe Americans want something of actual substance).

In fairness to Harris, the video is really meant as an advertisement for her Oakland rally — but still, more people will watch this video than the Oakland rally, and it’s her first video, paired with a tweet of her announcing she’s running, clearly meant to set the tone for her campaign. Is this really the tone that will speak to what Americans need right now?

PETE BUTTIGIEG

When Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee, he was still relatively unknown outside of Democratic fundraising circles, and so his campaign announcement video is perhaps a lesser-known introduction to him than his CNN town hall clips. The video is pretty standard political campaign fare, a quick minute and 44 seconds, beginning with somber piano and a camera drifting by a row of middle-class houses (I imagine it’s South Bend, Indiana, where Buttigieg is mayor, so the Midwestern aesthetic here feels less calculated than in other campaign videos). We then get Mayor Pete himself, looking broodingly out a window as he pontificates about the corruption in Washington, and then a shot of him in a suit going up what looks like a freight elevator.

Buttigieg has this uncanny ability to say things of very little substance but in a voice that makes it sound like he’s articulating something incredibly profound. Case in point, in this video he gravely intones that “there’s no such thing as again in the real world” and “we can’t look for greatness in the past” — just a simple refutation of Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan, but spoken like he’s giving us some profound and hard truth. Buttigieg then goes on to discuss his role as South Bend’s mayor and how he saved the city from economic ruin — it’s a good choice, given that few know who Buttigieg is at this point, and it’s similar to Warren giving us a video overview of her resume (Harris, I think, could have benefited from giving us more of her background, since she’s not exactly a household name at this point).

But then we get my favorite and possibly the worst shot in any of the campaign videos: Buttigieg in a suit walks through a ruined factory, with broken wood floors and a gray view out the windows, and after he passes a pillar, the factory becomes a sleek corporate office, with glass windows, a metal staircase, fake-wood floors, etc. It’s not only a somewhat clumsy transition, but the new office doesn’t exactly speak of a renewed America so much as of gentrification and a bland, sinister corporate aesthetic that will take over the American landscape — not exactly an inspiring vision for the downwardly mobile average American voter.

Buttigieg’s video concludes with a shot of him and his husband, some photos of him in combat attire, and clips of his speeches, all a good summary of his experience and who he is. But unlike Warren, who centered her campaign on the issue of economic decline, Buttigieg’s video never focuses on an issue and remains generic in its emphasis on a “fresh start.” It’s meant to signify that Buttigieg is a millennial and of a new generation — but I don’t think the appeal really works, especially not to other millennials, most of whom still prefer the 77-year-old guy. I think the main reason is that Buttigieg isn’t really like other millennials — most of us didn’t end up working at McKinsey. No, Buttigieg’s “millennial” references are actually, I think, coded appeals to older voters, a way to show them that millennials aren’t just the avocado-toast-eating socialists they read about it the news but hard workers not that different from them. As someone on Twitter once put it, Buttigieg appeals to boomers who wish their own son was more like him.

CORY BOOKER

I didn’t really want to put Booker on this list, because I don’t think he’ll do very well in the campaign — he’s barely at 2%, and in some polls he’s doing worse than Andrew Yang, but he has a bunch of endorsements, and it’s possible he’ll catch fire with some soundbite during the debate, at least enough to be on someone’s VP list. Still, to me he’s quite obviously the Marco Rubio of the field, someone who looks good on paper but can’t seem to put it all together the way someone like Warren can.

His announcement video has a high school marching band theme, which is perhaps a good aesthetic for connecting his personal story of growing up in a low income community, something he highlights throughout the video, to his political vision. But whereas he does a good job introducing us to who he is and focusing on a central issue, in this case housing and how it intersects with race, and even connects it nicely to the Civil Rights Movement with black and white clips of Martin Luther King and the Selma protest, he sort of drops the ball by the end of the video, which becomes a series of generic platitudes about “coming together” and overcoming “common pain” and achieving a “common purpose,” all of which is vaguely but very unclearly connected to the slogan “We Will Rise.” It’s a little more personal and interesting than Harris’s video, but still, you wonder why Booker doesn’t talk more about issues or center his campaign more emphatically on one idea, like Warren. Instead, he’s like someone trying to navigate this middle line between a corporate friendly vagueness and the inspiring personal story that’s made him into an “activist” (although, his history of voting with the pharma lobby makes his appeals to “activism” a little suspect).

BERNIE SANDERS

So, now we come to Bernie, who I’ve said last week is my unabashed favorite. I’ll do my best to look at his announcement video as objectively as possible, but as I mentioned, I don’t believe objectivity is possible. I can’t help it — Bernie inspires me. I find his videos moving and his ideas and the way are argues for them powerful. His campaign ad from last year, “America,” is I believe the one of the best campaign videos ever produced, conveying a ’60s idea of hope for a 21st-century audience.

His 2020 announcement video is more traditional than the “America” ad — at first, you’ve got the background piano, you’ve got the Midwestern landscape, you’ve got Bernie’s voice talking about “real change.” But then the video pivots to something more interesting, and Bernie’s voice becomes intercut with news reporters describing the way Sanders’s ideas have transformed the country’s discourse since 2016, while headlines appear over clips that take us through a range of his key issues — Medicare for All, free college tuition, climate change, income inequality, minimum wage, campaign finance, the war in Yemen, civil rights, mass incarceration, women’s rights, immigration. What I love about this video is that, of all the campaign announcements, it’s the only one that actually details major issues — Bernie doesn’t just rely on platitudes like Harris or Buttigieg, and he doesn’t focus on one issue at the expense of all others, like Warren. He reminds us that his campaign is about changing all these things. For those of us who’ve followed Bernie since 2016, nothing here is new or surprising. But seeing it all laid out like this, and in the words of a media class that has often been hostile to him, is pretty damn inspiring.

We then get references to some of Bernie’s victories, specifically getting Amazon and Disney to raise their minimum wages, and then a quick montage of Bernie shaking hands with people. We get a few buzzwords like “Fierce,” “Vision,” and “Leader,” but because they’re once again quotes from the media, they don’t have the canned corporateness of Harris’s video. They also come across as more powerful given the key issues the video has already emphasized — “vision” in particular then, is the most interesting word, because it summarizes the style of Bernie’s campaign. He won’t run on generic campaign platitudes like Buttigieg and Harris and he won’t just be a single issue candidate like Warren’s video makes her appear, but instead he’ll offer a broad swathe of changes, a new “vision” for the country. And unlike other “visions,” this one is actually specific.

Overall, Bernie’s campaign announcement is clearly the best, better even than Warren’s. It’s concise but detailed and it gives us an idea of exactly what Sanders believes in and wants to change. More broadly it points to the kind of campaign he wants to run. Unlike Warren or Buttigieg or Booker, he doesn’t talk about his background at all. He focuses on the issues. For better or worse, Bernie doesn’t want the campaign to be about him as an individual. After all, except for his voice, he himself is barely in the video. Perhaps this is a mistake, and perhaps voters do want someone who they can connect to as a person — but I think a large group will respond to his issues-oriented campaign and specifically to how it’s clear that all these issues will benefit them, giving them healthcare, college, higher wages, fewer wars. It’s rare to see a politician talk this much about specific issues, and I think that will make him stand out.

BETO O’ROURKE

Ah Beto — the man who the media fell in love with and then out of love with. What a cautionary tale of hubris — a modern Greek fable, a political Daedalus. Maybe Beto can bounce back into the spotlight at some point and recapture some of the energy of his Senate run against Ted Cruz (I actually think we might see Beto and Cruz in a Lincoln/Douglas style Presidential rematch some time in the future). But for now, Beto’s numbers seem to be plummeting like the graph in Warren’s announcement video — and his own video isn’t doing him any favors.

He begins with an awkward sentence: “Amy and I are happy to share with you that I’m running to serve you as the next President of the United States of America.” First of all, there are just too many prepositions in that sentence, too many “of” phrases that create an odd, drumbeat rhythm. It’s also the way Beto says it, with a weird forcefulness, like someone nervously reciting lines he’s clearly practiced a bunch of times in front of a mirror, leading to an odd anti-naturalness. His hand gestures also feel a bit much.

He then spouts a bunch of platitudes that mean absolutely nothing, talking about “peril” and “promise” and “fixing our democracy” — except unlike Harris, he doesn’t seem to realize that he should intercut his generalities with shots of crowds or background music to make it palatable. Instead, he just keeps going and going, talking at the camera and giving us nothing of substance, except a small discussion of paths to immigration. There’s also the awkwardness of his wife sitting there staring at him through this whole speech, blinking a few times, but otherwise unmoving.

I kept waiting for the video to change, to pivot to the standard fare that even Sanders indulged in, the crowds, the music — but no! Nothing! Just Beto talking at us for 3 and a half minutes! It’s so laughably awkward and earnest that I feel bad critiquing it like this — but the man is running for President, and as young as he is and looks, we shouldn’t treat him with kid gloves. So I have to say: his video was quite possibly the worst of all of these and told us nothing about who he is and what issues he stands for.

JOE BIDEN

Finally, we come to Joe Biden, the frontrunner (for now). If you read my piece last week, you know I’m not a fan of him. But the truth is, his video is actually very good, mainly because it’s perfectly calibrated in its appeal. First of all, it’s just Biden talking, looking old but dignified, no tie, American flag pin, gray hair nicely combed — older voters will like this image of an old person who can look put together (a sharp contrast to Bernie of the rumpled suits and hair). Meanwhile, Biden’s is a face America has seen before, for eight years, and seeing it again for 3 minutes 30 seconds is meant to be comforting, something underscored by the piano music, which here isn’t somber as in Warren’s video, but melancholy and a little nostalgic.

Biden then delivers a very coherent and articulate (to use a favorite word of his) argument about how Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, whose iconic words about equality we all know “by heart,” has sadly become a symbol of the neo-Nazism of twenty-first century America after the white supremacist march that took place there back in 2017. Biden then not only connects this resurgent fascism to “Europe in the 1930s” but also implicitly to Trump by criticizing him for praising “very fine people on both sides.” Biden goes on to say that the “threat to this nation was unlike any [he’d] seen in [his] lifetime,” a savvy way of making his age an asset rather than a liability, suggesting his own wisdom and all the history he’s witnessed.

It’s actually quite a brilliant political move to frame his campaign around the events of Charlottesville. We could critique Biden for co-opting the death of Heather Heyer, an activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for a presidential campaign that is most definitely not going to be socialist. But Biden smartly recognizes the horrifying symbolism of Charlottesville and knows that an anti-Trump campaign should be centered on the threat of resurgent fascism. The words he uses, from “threat” to “battle” to “soul,” are intense and dramatic, but they serve to underscore the gravity of what Trump represents. Biden then concludes his announcement with images representing the historic defeat of fascism (storming the beaches of Normandy, raising the flag at Iowa Jima) and reinforcing American values of democracy, freedom, and equality (the Statue of Liberty, MLK) — though unlike Harris’s video, these values don’t come across as vague platitudes but emphatic rejections of the neo-Nazism of Charlottesville.

Thus, when he concludes with the phrase “America is an Idea,” something that in other contexts might sound cheesy, it actually means something, because he’s articulated a vision of what that idea is — and even I, Biden skeptic that I am, felt something when he said it in his gruff, gravely voice.

What this announcement video makes clear is the type of campaign Biden is going to run. First, he is going to make the campaign about himself, not on a biographical level (since Biden’s political background, from an opposition to busing to the 1990s crime bill, is likely too conservative to sit comfortably with even moderate Democrats), but instead simply his face, his voice, him there as a comforting presence to remind us of the Obama years. Second, he’ll make it about Trump, about the threat he represents, and about defeating him and returning things to the way they were. He’s not running a campaign of ideas, and he certainly doesn’t have the broad social vision of Bernie Sanders. No, as he says quite literally in the video, he “hope[s] that history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.” Sanders and Warren might think America’s problems go beyond Trump, and that Trump is a symptom and not the disease, but Joe Biden does not. Now, I obviously think Sanders and Warren are right — but many Americans don’t. Many Democrats, especially the wealthier, older ones, think everything was perfectly fine under Obama and have no problem with neoliberalism or imperial wars. Biden’s announcement is meant to appeal to those voters, not millennial leftists like me.

Conclusion

Overall then, from these seven examples, I think it’s pretty clear what makes an effective announcement video and what doesn’t. Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke — their videos all failed largely because they lacked specifics, a specific vision of the problems in this country, and a specific vision of how they would fix them. Instead, they fell back on generic platitudes and vague buzzwords, even if most of them (Beto being the strange exception) clearly had the money to make their videos polished and professional (Beto, of course, had plenty of money, having raised more in one day than Bernie and just a little less than Biden, which makes you wonder why his announcement video wasn’t better). In contrast, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden, each in their own way, offered specific visions of what ails the country and specific visions of how they would fix it and framed their ads to make these visions clear. Bernie’s video was the best of these I think, better than Warren’s because it offered a more comprehensive vision, but Biden’s was well crafted and effective at what it was meant to do, and I acknowledge that even though it wasn’t meant to appeal to me, I still found it effective.

Ultimately, the election will come down to these two very different kinds of Democratic party voters — those who Bernie and Warren are appealing to, who want significant change, and those who Biden is appealing to, who simply want to get rid of Trump and go back to the Obama years. Which appeal will draw more voters we have yet to see.

Aatif Rashid

Written by

Writer, PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (out March 18, 2019 from 7.13 Books)

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