On Tuesday, one of the most unusual campaigns in recent memory came to an end. Former Sen. Mike Gravel dropped his bid for the presidency and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination.
On one hand, Gravel’s absurdist, four-month quasi-campaign fit squarely into the American tradition of protest campaigns in that its main goal was to, in the campaign’s own words, “revolt against the soullessness of contemporary politics.” Gravel kicked off his campaign saying that he wasn’t actually running to win — just to make one of the early Democratic debates so that his views could get a wider airing. Although his staff later said he was running to win (apparently to make it easier for Gravel to qualify both for the debates and for FiveThirtyEight’s own “major candidate” status, which he did in June), it was pretty clear that they knew the 89-year-old would never actually serve as president.
Their real goal was to inject Gravel’s far-left views, such as ending “imperialist” wars, legalizing drugs and enacting dramatic political reforms, into the primary. Among a certain segment of Extremely Online Democrats, his Twitter account became a viral sensation for taking a cudgel to virtually every establishment Democrat under the sun (sometimes drawing condemnation for going too far).
On the other hand, Gravel’s campaign was unique. Most famously, he was convinced to run (or, more accurately, to let someone take out Federal Election Committee paperwork on his behalf1) by two teenagers, who then assumed responsibility for the day-to-day operations of his campaign. Gravel himself did a few media interviews but otherwise resolved to “sit on my patio and see what happens.” He didn’t make a single visit to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina.
Instead, the “Gravel teens” conducted the campaign almost entirely online, via the aforementioned caustic Twitter account and over-the-top YouTube videos — including a jacked-up sequel to the infamous “rock” ad from Gravel’s first presidential run. Essentially, it was a modern, digital version of the “front-porch campaign,” a turn-of-the-century phenomenon whereby presidential candidates mostly stayed at home and waited for voters to come to them.
And … it kind of worked? No, Gravel didn’t get anywhere close to the nomination, but the tweets and stunts did convince more than 65,000 people to donate to the campaign, thus qualifying Gravel to participate in the July primary debate. (He ultimately was not invited to appear, presumably because too many candidates qualified and the tiebreaker rules favored candidates who met the polling criteria, which Gravel did not.) At the very least, Gravel’s quest provided the most extreme example yet that social media can be a viable alternative to traditional campaigning. Might he have lit the path forward for future niche candidates to run their entire campaign on the internet? After all, most Americans have now joined this domain that allows for instant, effortless interaction. Why couldn’t a serious presidential campaign be waged online someday? (Free dystopian novel idea: A person successfully runs for president online, then is revealed to be catfishing.)
On policy, though, it’s a lot less clear that the #Gravelanche influenced the 2020 Democratic primary. For all the campaign’s shouting on the internet, “right-wing chauvinist” and former Vice President Joe Biden retains a comfortable lead in the polls. And Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and arguably a few other candidates have been the ones to define the leftmost boundary of the debate, not Gravel. The Gravel campaign may have been a thorn in the establishment’s side, but his views didn’t get a broad public airing.
Now that the campaign is over, the Gravel campaign says it is reorganizing into the Gravel Institute, a think tank for the ex-senator’s leftist priorities. The campaign says the money left over from the campaign will be donated to charity, and his teenaged consiglieri will move on to a fellowship at Jacobin, a socialist magazine. Gravel’s exit means we are now down to 23 major Democratic presidential candidates, by FiveThirtyEight’s definition. Then again, everyone was already acting like he wasn’t running anyway.