Political Playlists: How Music Affects Voters' Views of Presidential Candidates

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The stage is seen prior to the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on June 26, 2019 in Miami.

The first Democratic presidential debates of the 2020 election kick off on June 26 and 27 in Miami, in which 20 candidates -- including current and former members of Congress, governors, mayors, a former vice president and two candidates who’ve never held an elected office -- take to the stage, 10 candidates on each night. 

Hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, the two-night event will be held in downtown Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center and moderated by Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Diaz-Balart.

The first face-off includes Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan and Elizabeth Warren.

Night two, round two will include Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.

The campaigns are in final preparations to debut their respective candidates on the national stage, showcasing their strategies on domestic policy, deft handling of foreign affairs and, of course, playlists curated with surgical precision.

Why the focus on playlists? It’s all about connecting a candidate with the potential voter and even the smallest connection can create a mood, memory and identification point.

“Playlists have a little something for everybody -- a way to signal, ‘Hey, you can be on our team, too,’” explains UW-Madison associate professor Michael Wagner. “Like Pete Buttigieg’s playlist, Buttijams -- you can see stuff from different generations, from different lifestyles and issue preferences.”

As for Sen. Kamala Harris’ newly released playlist, it’s not a coincidence that she selected 46 songs -- a nod to the job she’s running for.

Incorporating pop culture and music to persuade voters is certainly not new to the 21st century election cycle.

In 2004, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., John Fogerty and others tried to rock the vote to help elect Democrat John Kerry in a series of Vote for Change concerts and in 2008, Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am released “Yes We Can” based on Barack Obama’s stump speech. 

In 2012, Obama turned politics on its head and released a 41-song playlist on Spotify -- not just patriotic themes, but songs that resonated with his diverse constituency, ranging from Stevie Wonder’s signature, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” to ”Get Right” by Jennifer Lopez.

The fact that Obama shared his musical choices proved to be an unprecedented success and a seminal moment in politics, as the playlist became de rigueur in American presidential campaigns. From that moment forward, every national candidate in the 2016 election deemed the playlist as an intrinsic part of their strategy.

But who votes for the leader of the free world based on their musical selection? According to political scientists, it’s part of a larger picture.

“Music allows candidates to position themselves in such a way that they’re pushing back against the status quo, but without talking about the sitting incumbent president,” explains Prof. Julia Azari, associate professor and assistant chair in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. “It’s a nuanced way to send a campaign message.”

And what happens if the artist doesn’t like the politician? While Republican candidates have a decidedly lengthy history of playing unsanctioned music while on stage -- remember Springsteen’s rebuke of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2014 -- Democrats are not immune to criticism, as Dolly Parton recently asked Elizabeth Warren to stop playing “9 to 5” at her campaign rallies.  "We did not approve the request, and we do not approve requests like this of political nature," Parton's manager, Danny Nozell, told the Associated Press by email when asked about the Massachusetts senator's use of "9 to 5."

According to Wagner, "The disapproval can influence a news cycle and becomes a story... and that prevents candidates from talking about things they prefer to talk about."

None of this has gone unnoticed by the two streaming giants, Spotify and Apple Music, but they’ve taken decidedly different approaches. In the 2018 midterm elections, Spotify promoted “Get Out the Vote” efforts by releasing “get vocal” playlists in each state ahead of the elections. When asked if Spotify would return to U.S. voter engagement in the 2020 election, a spokesperson was non-committal -- not a huge surprise, given the June 6 announcement that the company would be developing podcasts with former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.

To date, Apple Music appears politically neutral, and includes podcasts by various politicians, most notably former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

While most people dismiss the idea that music makes an impact on selecting a presidential candidate, Mike Wolf, a registered voter in New York, acknowledged the connection.

“We would all love to believe that we base our voting decisions purely based on policies, qualifications and logic,” Wolf says. “But we all know that personality and individual charisma has a huge effect on elections, and music is hugely visceral. Am I going to change my vote to Trump just because he busts out a Jonathan Richman record? Of course not. But when I'm choosing among primary candidates, I'd be lying to myself if I thought that music played at rallies didn't have a subconscious effect.”

Here's a breakdown of the songs you'll hear from the top 19 Democratic candidates participating in the debate based on Billboard's reporting, a recent tweet from Time's Lissandra Villa after an Iowa Hall of Fame event attended by 19 of the Democratic candidates, and the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng’s report from Trump’s first official campaign rally for 2020.

Michael Bennett (U.S. Senator from Colorado)
Walk-out music: "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen

Bill de Blasio (Mayor of New York City)
Walk-out song: "Rudy Can't Fail," The Clash

Cory Booker (U.S. Senator from New Jersey)
Walk-out song: "Lovely Day," Bill Withers
Additional songs including those from Booker's 2019 Black History Month Playlist: Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and James Brown's "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud -- Pts. 1& 2."

Pete Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Ind.)
Walk-out song: "High Hopes," Panic! At the Disco
Additional music from Pete Buttigieg’s “Buttijam” playlist: Beck’s “I’m So Free,”Won’t Get Fooled Again - Single Edit” by The Who, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead, and “Good As Hell” by Lizzo (and also used by U.S. Senator Gillibrandt’s campaign)

Julian Castro (former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; playlist supplied by campaign)
Walk-out song: The Byrds, "Turn, Turn, Turn"
Playlist also includes: Selena's " Baila Esta Cumbia," Tracy Chapman's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Gener8ion's "Da Da Ding" (feat. Gizzle), Florence + the Machine's "Third Eye," Lenny Kravitz's "Let Love Rule," Panic! at the Disco's "High Hopes" and Calle 13's "Latinoamérica" (feat. Totó la Momposina, Susana Baca & María Rita)

John Delaney (former U.S. Representative from Maryland)
Walk-out music: "I've Been Everywhere," Johnny Cash

Tulsi Gabbard (U.S. Representative from Hawaii)
Walk-out song: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Kirsten Gillibrand (U.S. Senator from New York)
Walk-out music: "Good as Hell," Lizzo

Kamala Harris (U.S. Senator from California)
Walk-out song: "Work That," Mary J. Blige

John Hickenlooper (former Governor of Colorado; playlist supplied by campaign)
Walk-out song: Alabama Shakes, "Don't Wanna Fight" (walk-off: OneRepublic, "Good Life" and Eddie Vedder’s "Rise Up”)
Additional songs include: The Black Keys' "Howlin' for You," The Avett Brothers' "Salvation Song," Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" and Old Crow Medicine Show's "Mean Enough World."

Jay Inslee (Governor of Washington)
Walk-out song: "Mr. Blue Sky," Electric Light Orchestra

Amy Klobuchar (U.S. Senator from Minnesota; supplied by campaign)
Walk-out song: Dessa, "The Bullpen"
Playlist includes: Jill Scott, "Golden," Carly Rae Jepsen, "Cut to the Feeling," Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and Prince, "Purple Rain."

Beto O'Rourke (former U.S. Representative from Texas)
Walk-out song: "Clampdown," The Clash

Tim Ryan (U.S. Representative from Ohio)
Walk-out music: "Old Town Road," Lil Nas X

Bernie Sanders (U.S. Senator from Vermont)
Walk-out song: "Power to the People," John Lennon

Eric Swalwell (U.S. Representative from California)
Walk-out music: "Caught up in the Country," Rodney Atkins

Elizabeth Warren (U.S. Senator from Massachusetts)
Walk-out music: "9 to 5," Dolly Parton (Parton has asked her to stop playing the song)

Marianne Williamson (teacher/entrepreneur)
Walk-out music: "Higher Ground," Stevie Wonder

Andrew Yang (entrepreneur, Venture for America founder; playlist supplied by campaign)
Walk-out song: Drake, "Started From the Bottom"; "Return of the Mack," Mark Morrison
(Click here for the full Spotify playlist): Jess Glynne's "Ain't Got Far to Go," Hamilton Mixtape's "My Shot" (Rise Up Remix), U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," Taylor Swift's "End Game" and Muse's "Uprising."


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