A SurveyUSA poll conducted late last month found Curtis earning about 6 percent of the vote, slightly less than the part of the population that said it was undecided about who they might support. Unsurprisingly, Democrats heavily back the Democrat Jack Conway and Republicans heavily back the Republican Matt Bevin.
To an impartial observer, the moral of this story might be "online fame does not translate into political success." For Curtis, who wrote an essay at Wired on Monday, the moral is something else: "The two-party system is stupid, and I am at the leading edge of dismantling it."
That's only a slight paraphrase. The piece is titled "Someday, tech will bring down our dumb two-party system," and Curtis clearly thinks that day might be tomorrow, if it's not actually today. "I based my run on a theory: that the Internet and social media have finally made it possible for a third party candidate to win," he writes. "Regardless of how things turn out, I’m convinced I was absolutely correct. And I’m also convinced you’ll see more candidates like me in the near future."
It's hard not to consider this essay without recognizing that I have two biases at play. The first is that I spend a lot of time looking at politics — to the point that I think I have a decent sense of what does and doesn't constitute a successful campaign. And second, that Curtis' tech-industry-ish background means that he puts inordinate faith in the Power of Disruption,™ something to which politics has, to this point, proven fairly unyielding.
So with those caveats: Come on, man. You are getting 6 percent in the polls. Maybe you'll end up with more; we'll see. But that is one percentage point more than Howie Hawkins got in his bid to be governor of New York in 2014. Who is Howie Hawkins? I had to Google him, and I 1) live in New York and 2) write about politics for a living. If the Internet and social media gets you one more percent of the vote than a relatively anonymous Green Party candidate in New York, maybe the future isn't as near as it seems.
Curtis offers evidence to prove the point that his poll numbers belie.
He notes that the media still matters. Not because the media is covering the race and informing voters — Curtis tells us that reporters he has spoken with "think that social media and the Internet in general have replaced the job they used to do" — but because the media chooses who gets to be in debates. And because his poll numbers were too low, he didn't get invited to the last one.
He was in earlier ones after the media deigned to include him. Curtis says he held his own, but it doesn't seem to have helped him much in the polls.
That links to Curtis's next point, that ideology is overrated. Most candidates, you see, will tell you where they stand on a position as it comports with their political leaning. "As soon as you’ve signaled which camp you belong to," Curtis writes, "both sides start yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing." Curtis's strategy was to be pragmatic about problems and not doctrinaire. ("I found that voters responded very strongly to this strategy," he adds.)
But go back to that first graph, and consider what happened when Curtis was in the debates. In the Kentucky governor's race, partisanship rules. Why? In part because Democrats very much want to hold the seat (Gov. Steve Beshear is term limited out after eight years in office) and Republicans very much want to capture it.
It is also because bespoke answers don't scale, to put it in tech parlance. Curtis can't offer his pragmatic approach to bridge tolls (the example he uses) in one-on-one conversations with everyone, and we use political parties as cues for what someone will generally do in office. Most people pay very little attention to politics and are only sort-of interested in hearing what politicians want to do. Political parties play a role in helping inform people on a whole host of things very quickly. That is one key reason they exist.
I mean, Howie Hawkins got 5 percent of the vote in New York because of his political party. If Curtis had run as a libertarian, he'd probably be doing better than he is now. Even in nonpartisan races, people seek out partisan identifiers (like endorsements) in order to utilize the shorthand that Curtis disdains.
What else did Curtis learn? That you should reach out to voters when they are ready for you, which, apparently, means posting comments on their Facebook pages? "You can’t win everyone’s vote, you just need more than the others get," he says. Facebook comments are a particularly slow way to win anyone's vote.
And finally, be candid, not naive. When Curtis got invited to one of the debates, he said he'd vote for Donald Trump for president. This did not help him with Democrats. "I’m not really sure what to make of it, honestly," he summarizes, "other than if it’s your first campaign you’re apparently only allowed to make one mistake." I mean, the extent to which Curtis seems to assume that politicians will have an infinite opportunity to communicate in a unique way with every voter is astonishing.
There is no doubt that social media and the Internet have and will provide opportunities to upend the traditional political establishment. Look at Donald Trump. He's got a lot of advantages that Curtis doesn't, but he's done a good job of building up a messaging system that operates outside of the constraints of the party he hopes to lead. But what if he weren't running as a Republican? What if he too wanted to run as an independent? He'd probably do better than 6 percent, but it's safe to assume that he wouldn't be nearly as dominant as he is in the GOP race right now. And that's even with the advantages of name identification and money that Curtis lacks.
I am more optimistic than most that the Internet will continue to reshape how campaigns interact with people, but I'm very confident that at no time in the immediate to intermediate future will the two-party system be at risk from it. Parties have a lot of power beyond selecting and validating candidates, which Twitter accounts will not, over the short term, fix. (Curtis is on Twitter, by the way. He has 14,000 followers.)
There's a terrific diagram, one of those bits of Internet flotsam that appears to trace back to an online comic called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It neatly summarizes a phenomenon which anyone who's ever stumbled into earshot of a freshman philosophy student will recognize.
I'm not saying you're at the peak of Mount Stupid, Mr. Curtis. I'm just saying that I hope you have a toboggan for the ride you're about to experience.
Update, Wednesday: Curtis did worse than polling suggested. He got 3.7 percent of the vote — well under Howie Hawkins.