By Published: June 10, 2024

CU Boulder doctoral student examines how an unconventional social media campaign worked in 2020 to make Joe Biden more appealing—or at least less unappealing—to progressive voters

As the U.S. presidential campaign heated up in 2020, Kate Arnold-Murray’s friends started sharing social media posts that simultaneously poked fun at Joe Biden while also promoting him as a much better alternative to Donald Trump.

One such post on Instagram compared Biden to a Dairy Queen ice cream cone, with the accompanying tagline “Unappetizing but still edible.” Another post showed Biden preparing to swing a baseball bat, with the tagline “Because a foul ball is better than a strike,” while a third post showed Biden taking a knee in front of a chalkboard, with the tagline “Because a C+ is better than an F.”

“My friends started sharing these, what I would call memes, on Instagram—and I thought they were absolutely hilarious,” says Arnold-Murray, a doctoral student in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Linguistics.

Kate Arnold-Murray

Kate Arnold-Murray, a CU Boulder PhD student in linguistics, was intrigued by the "Settle for Biden" campaign, in part, because it seemed doubtful to her that the Biden campaign was behind it, but the catchy posts appeared to be produced by an operation that knew how to create a social-media buzz.

“I also felt (the ads) were impactful, because my friends were sharing them as a way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m not thrilled about it, but I’m voting for Biden, and you should, too.’ That was a really powerful messaging strategy when Biden wasn’t really liked by a lot of progressives, or when people on the left had a hesitancy with Biden in a way I didn’t see with people sharing they were voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

Arnold-Murray says the social media campaign—dubbed “Settle for Biden”—intrigued her, in part because it seemed doubtful to her that the Biden campaign was behind it, but the catchy posts appeared to be produced by an operation that knew how to create a social-media buzz.

Meanwhile, the way in which the campaign stumped for its preferred choice for president—as someone who is less than ideal but still much better than the alternative—was something that captured her attention as someone who studies the effect that language and visuals can have on an audience. That, in turn, prompted Arnold-Murray to write the paper “Settle for Biden: The scalar production of a normative presidential candidate on Instagram,” which was published online by the journal Language in Society earlier this year.

Recently, Arnold-Murray spoke with Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine about insights she gained from examining the verbiage and visuals from the Settle for Biden campaign, her view on the pros and cons of promoting a candidate as mediocre but safe and her thoughts on whether such a campaign can be successful a second time around, now that Biden has an established presidential track record. Her answers have been lightly edited for style and condensed for space.

Question: Why did you think ‘Settle for Biden’ would be a good topic to explore in a research paper?

Arnold-Murray: Since Trump first ran for president, the U.S. has been in such political turmoil, and in my opinion, the political left has been a mess. We have had a really hard time figuring out how to respond to Trump and how to message.

What I saw—and what I’m still seeing—is that the left is constructing this new strategy. This campaign (Settle for Biden) was doing something that I hadn’t seen before. Usually, when people are running for office—and you’re advocating that people should vote for them—you’re saying, ‘He is the best of the best.’ ‘She has the highest level of education.’ ‘He has done so much to help people.’ ‘She’s an incredible person.’

We haven’t historically seen (a campaign for a politician) that says, ‘Because a C+ is better than an F’ or ‘Because a foul ball is better than a strike.’ We don't see people saying, ‘Our candidate, we don’t love them, but we are going to support them.’

And I think that’s something that needed to happen in 2020 among a divided Democratic Party, or especially with progressives feeling divided from the Democratic Party—to get people onboard against a common enemy.

Settle for Biden campaign Instagram post

"The (Settle for Biden" campaign was always able to find a way to position Biden above Trump—even if he’s not ideal to their demographic, and simultaneously to acknowledge there is really no person at the top of the scale who we can vote for who can win," says CU Boulder researcher Kate Arnold-Murray.

Question: It seems like an underlying goal of the Settle for Biden campaign is to get people to pick Biden as the safe, if mediocre, candidate?

Arnold-Murray: Yes, definitely. This is why I chose to use this kind of scalar theoretical framework, because in each post we really have three candidates: We have the nonexistent, nonrealistic, ideal candidate for young progressives. But in a two-party system—and especially in 2020—that candidate did not exist, at least in terms of having chance of winning.

So, in that scenario, we have the home run or A+ candidate; then we have Joe Biden in the middle, as a foul ball or C+; and then we get to Donald Trump, always portrayed as the worst possible thing.

In constructing that scalar world, the campaign was always able to find a way to position Biden above Trump—even if he’s not ideal to their demographic, and simultaneously to acknowledge there is really no person at the top of the scale who we can vote for who can win.

Question: In your paper, you talk a lot about ‘scalar normativity.’ What does that mean?

Arnold-Murray: It’s a somewhat new theoretical framework for thinking about normativity. When we talk about normativity in the social sciences, usually we’re talking about things that are viewed as so normal that they usually fly under the radar. … I was looking at how this campaign was appealing to centers of authority, like with the Dairy Queen example, to say, 'What is normal to the middle class?' Well, maybe it’s like a Dairy Queen ice cream cone, because you can eat it, but you don’t necessarily love it.

Question: In the Settle for Biden memes you highlighted, Trump isn’t named, but there’s the assumption that the audience is going to understand whom Biden is being compared to, correct?

Arnold-Murray: Yes, Trump is always there in every post, and I think that’s always true of an election between two people. When you are campaigning and saying things about yourself, it’s known and assumed that you are going against this other person. For the most part, in the posts I examined, the campaign did not mention Trump at all—but he’s kind of this haunting presence.

For example, in the post ‘Joe Biden knows how to pronounce Yosemite,’ even if you did not know that Trump had mispronounced it earlier, you would be able to infer it, based on how the campaign talks. So, the other guy must have done it wrong if Joe Biden is doing it right.

And when we get these two positionalities, in the post that claims ‘Because of C+ is better than an F,' the caption says, ‘Joe Biden isn’t the A we wanted … but four more years of Trump would certainly mean failure.’ So, you know who the F is.

Again, I very much view (Trump) as almost kind of haunting this campaign, and at least for me personally, I found it a really effective strategy. As someone on the left, I just didn’t want to see pictures of Donald Trump; I didn’t want to hear his voice; I didn’t want to read his words in my daily life, because it was just so toxic. This strategy of calling Trump in, therefore, gave a wary audience a way to engage with him less directly.

Settle for Biden campaign Instagram post

CU Boulder scholar Kate Arnold-Murray notes that the "Settle for Biden" campaign might not land as well in the 2024 presidential election.

Question: Is there any way to gauge whether the Settle for Biden campaign actually helped get progressives to vote for Biden on election day?

Arnold-Murray: The campaign’s director, Sam Weinberg, ended up doing quite a few interviews that got a fair amount of media attention. And they (Settle for Biden) ended up partnering with organizations that were dedicated to motivating young voters to vote and helping people register to vote.

I would have loved for there to have been a poll (about the campaign’s effectiveness) but that doesn’t seem to exist. So, I can only judge things based on the media coverage it generated and the work that the group was able to do because it had this platform to support on-the-ground efforts.

Question: Do you think the campaign can be successful a second time if progressives don’t believe Biden has been sufficiently liberal during his first term in office?

Arnold-Murray: The resonance of an average Joe, after he’s been in office for four years, might not land as well the second time around. I think the Settle for Biden campaign might need to give more props for what Biden has done, because I think he actually has accomplished a lot. …

But with some of Biden’s actions and policies, especially with Israel, being so unpopular on the left, does that idea really stack up anymore? Does good enough still work? It’s a fair question.

Then again, it’s still the same opponent he faced four years ago. So, for me personally, I’m hoping the campaign is going to figure out how to make Biden the much better choice for progressive voters.

Question: Have you received any reaction to your paper?

Arnold-Murray: My most exciting feedback that I’ve received on the paper has been when I shared it on Facebook or on Instagram. Hearing from people who are not linguists or academics or anthropologists, who were able to read and understand it and enjoy it, was rewarding.

For me, that’s a big win, because I feel like I was doing a couple big things with theory that were a little complicated, but at the same time, I really tried to make it something that’s accessible for people to engage with. And the Instagram posts themselves are interesting and entertaining.

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