It’s still early in the 2024 election cycle, yet crypto is everywhere. Vivek Ramaswamy is readying a crypto policy framework. Governor Ron DeSantis boasts about banning a hypothetical central bank digital currency in Florida and supporting Bitcoin.
What’s to make of all the fuss? While some may believe the focus on crypto is a sign that the issue will play a decisive role in picking the next president, crypto’s prominence in the Republican primary tells us most about the current state of US political strategy.
America’s politics are driven by ideological uniformity. A Republican candidate running in a primary as a supporter of abortion rights? She or he is a sure political loser. Maybe increased taxes on upper-income Americans or action on climate change? Good luck. In an era of ideological uniformity, there just aren’t many places for candidates looking for an edge to go to in a crowded primary election. And this is where crypto comes in — the perfect edge for candidates to use to gain votes and campaign dollars.
Read more: Presidential hopeful Ramaswamy pledges ‘comprehensive crypto policy’ by Thanksgiving
To understand fully, one must go back to one of the most impactful elections of our lifetimes — 2008. In 2008, then-Senator Hillary Clinton began the Democratic primary as the prohibitive frontrunner. Clinton’s campaign was aided by leading Democratic strategist Mark Penn, who was at the tip of the spear in using demographic analysis to assess the electorate and devise winning strategies.
In 1996, Penn’s identification of “Soccer Moms” as a critical voting block helped power former President Bill Clinton to a second term in the White House. Penn’s genius was figuring out that news consumption habits and other technological changes had made Americans more segmented than ever before. According to Penn, the key to the political future was understanding the microtrends that drove communities and crafting messages that aligned with those communities’ values.
However, sometimes an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object, and the rules of the game are changed by forces that were unthinkable when the game was invented.
In 2008, that force was then-Senator Barack Obama. In winning the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Obama didn’t slice and dice the electorate, as he was fond of saying in an oblique criticism of Clintonian political strategy.
Read more: Ron DeSantis posturing on bitcoin is just performative politics
Obama changed the political math. Through organizing, he brought new voters into the Democratic primary and made focusing on the “microtrends” in the old electorate obsolete, or so some thought.
History, as it turns out, has multiple drafts. In subsequent election cycles, Democrats learned that Obama was a political powerhouse whose organizing strategy — and by extension, the voters he brought into the electorate — was difficult to translate without Obama himself on top of the ticket. In midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, Democrats got destroyed because the electorate comprised the voters Penn had sought to slice and dice, not the broader Obama coalition that made him the 44th president of the United States in 2008 and reelected him in 2012.
Despite running one of the most analytically advanced campaigns in 2012, Obama, his record of accomplishments, and his political skill changed the composition of the electorate — instead of microtargeting the old electorate. President Obama was the exception, not the rule, to understanding the electorate. In later election cycles, Democrats ended up succeeding through microtargeting: A derivative of Penn’s microtrends thesis, which today is generally referred to as analytics, even as Penn has become persona non grata among Democrats.
And while Republicans and Democrats believe different things on policy, the practice of politics — finding voters and niche issues that can move cohorts of a voting population in a tight race — is essentially the same, which brings one to the 2024 Republican primary and the increasing focus on crypto.
Crypto use and support tend to skew toward demographic cohorts more likely to be Republicans. And suppose you’re a Republican presidential candidate looking for a spark. What better issue to spend time on than one of committed supporters with enough disposable income to comprise a small-dollar donor base?
And there you have it. Crypto’s presence in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Test the thesis for yourself. Imagine a Republican candidate looking for an edge. What issue does she or he have at hand to create a distinction with the larger field? Crypto.
Cynical? Yes, but crypto enthusiasts might benefit substantively nonetheless. Candidates often feel tethered to their campaign promises, whether they made them out of genuine political conviction or a ruthless search for an edge. After all, they’re just following the trends.
John Rizzo is Senior Vice President for Public Affairs at Clyde Group where he provides strategic counsel and communications guidance to a broad range of financial services clients, including market participants in traditional finance along with emerging and innovative spaces such as digital assets and fintech. Rizzo most recently served as the Senior Spokesperson at the U.S. Department of the Treasury where he led public affairs strategy on digital assets, fintech, climate finance, financial stability, domestic finance, and economic policy. Prior to his service at the Treasury Department, Rizzo was a top communications adviser to Sen. Chuck Schumer (New York) and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (Pennsylvania).
Don’t miss the next big story – join our free daily newsletter.
Follow Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial with the latest news from the courtroom.