Lesson From the US Elections: Don't Mention Crypto

In 2020, as U.S. presidential candidates squared off, the mob of Democratic hopefuls sought to separate themselves from the pack. As part of his bold campaign for fixing imbalances in the economy, Andrew Yang didn’t shy away from predicting cryptocurrencies may have a useful role.

He joked at a recent event in Washington, D.C., that his campaign staff pleaded with him to stop talking about crypto.

“My team didn't want me hammering that message in mainstream press appearances,” he told CoinDesk in an interview. His people wanted him to stick to another message, Yang said. But the U.S. electorate hasn’t generally clamored to send cutting-edge tech leaders to Washington, and his presidential campaign collapsed quickly.

This year, crypto hasn’t apparently fared any better as a political topic in midterm congressional campaigns approaching the Nov. 8 general election. A remarkable few candidates have been willing to say anything at all about digital assets in public, though plenty have assured the industry privately about what they’d do for crypto and that their campaigns are worth supporting financially.

Michelle Bond, CEO of the Association for Digital Asset Markets, which lobbies on behalf of crypto businesses in Washington, was among the rare cryptocurrency advocates who ran for Congress this year, and she quickly learned that crypto carried some political toxicity.

“Crypto was not a welcome topic on the campaign trail, from the opponents I was running against, and also from the voters,” Bond, who sought the Republican nomination for a New York seat, said in an interview. She didn’t make crypto a significant point in her campaigning, but she didn’t have to, she said, because she carried that label whether she wanted to or not. “I was called the crypto queen.”

She received 6491 votes, compared to the 11,398 won by the eventual Republican candidate. Elsewhere, Bruce Fenton, an early Bitcoin investor and advocate, sought the Republican nod for a seat in New Hampshire, but he drew only 4.4% of the vote in that primary. And in Oregon, Matt West, a decentralized finance (DeFi) developer, came in sixth in his Democratic primary, snaring 8%.

There was a lot of crypto distrust among voters who didn’t know much about the industry, Bond said, arguing that lobbyists have been doing a good job educating policymakers but haven’t yet reached the broader public.

“Crypto needs to do a much better job in the mainstream media,” she said, though the mainstream press has devoted plenty of attention in recent months to the dramatic collapse of several prominent firms, sunken token prices and endless hacker thefts. “We need to make advancements beyond, and we need to start touching those voters.”

Crypto has a demographic. Those drawn to digital assets are most often men, and they’re most likely to be under 30, according to Pew Research Center data (and overwhelming bro-culture evidence). Young men are not big voters in the U.S., statistically. So when a politician starts going on about crypto, campaign advisers know they’re not likely to win a lot of votes with it, and they may risk alienating older folks who may be uneasy about this financial movement.

About one in eight people in the U.S. currently hold crypto, according to a recent poll from the Crypto Council for Innovation. More than half of the 1,200 voters surveyed online – 52% – said they want more regulation for the crypto industry, while just 7% favored less oversight. So they favor the government being engaged, but they also indicated they’d be much less likely to vote for a candidate who supports cryptocurrencies.

In another poll released this week, 37% of those surveyed said they’d consider a candidate’s views on crypto before casting their vote.

Like Bond, another House candidate in Illinois, Jonathan Jackson – a businessman, professor and the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson – also learned crypto support comes with a price. He drew political attacks for benefiting from hundreds of thousands of dollars that crypto industry sources spent on ads for his campaign. The money was deployed as “independent expenditures,” which is a way corporate sources or wealthy benefactors can pile unlimited cash into a campaign, so Jackson argued he had no choice about accepting the help.

“By definition, an independent expenditure is just that, independent,” he told Chicago-area media in a statement. “We did not seek it, and we cannot control it.”

Still, his campaign website is one of the few in the nation that openly touts the benefits of crypto, and since he claimed a decisive victory in his Democratic primary, he’s expected to win in the general election next week and join Congress next year.

The crypto industry itself is well aware that it’s not going to win a lot of votes for its favored candidates. So when its political action committees (PACs) buy TV ads or mailers for candidates, the issues they highlight aren’t typically about crypto at all. They often focus on topics that are specifically important to the district or state their candidate is running in, so a viewer would hardly guess an ad was paid for by a crypto PAC if not for the small-print disclosures they may spot.

The so-called crypto winter has strangled most feel-good stories about regular people gaining wealth in the new markets. Instead, many voters are likely to know somebody who has been having a tough time recently with crypto. That further suppresses candidates’ ability to make friends through digital-assets conversations.

“It's not like anyone is rah, rah, rah, crypto right now,” said Bond, whose “crypto queen” label didn’t seem to help the political novice’s second-place outcome in the primaries, despite Crypto Innovation PAC spending more than $1 million dollars in advertising to support her.