Democrat Ayanna Pressley won her Massachusetts congressional primary on Tuesday night, ousting 10-term incumbent Rep. Mike Capuano and positioning herself for an all-but-certain win in the solidly Democratic district come November. Her about 18-point win was a massive surprise—in the weeks before the election, not a single poll had her in the lead.
Pressley asks, “We won?!” in seeming disbelief, then immediately dispenses hugs to the family members and supporters surrounding her. With tears in her eyes, she sobs, “Oh my God” over and over again. She is a veritable picture of joy, gratitude, and humility. On Wednesday, the video went viral, promoted with appreciative headlines like “Ayanna Pressley’s Reaction to Her Historic Victory Is Everything” and “Watch the Emotional Moment Ayanna Pressley Found Out She Won Her Historic Primary Election.”
Pressley has drawn comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another progressive Democrat who recently beat out a long-term incumbent for a congressional nomination. She, too, got a lot of good press when a local news broadcast caught her on tape just as the Bronx, New York, native got wind of her unexpected victory over 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley. She screams, “OH MY GOD” and clasps her hand over her mouth; when she takes it down, her jaw remains dropped. Her eyes are wide, filled with eager delight.
This emerging microgenre of election-reaction videos could become a trademark image enhancer for lefty challengers. The videos offer candidates the opportunity to show genuine emotion in an industry that doesn’t often lend itself to flashes of unscripted humanity. Candidates usually learn they’ve won in sealed-up hotel suites and green rooms, with only their closest comrades around to witness their moment-of-victory amazement. Typically, we only see them in public once they compose themselves and deliver a poised, gracious, and canned acceptance speech. Letting voters peek into the room in the vulnerable, charged instant when they’ve fulfilled their long-shot dreams is a populist act befitting of Pressley’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s politics.
It’s also endearing as all get-out. To be surprised at one’s win is to have never expected to win, which is a level of humility we rarely see from a political class that’s dominated by those taken in by the smell of their own farts. Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez had little reason to believe they would succeed in their bids to unseat powerful white men with 20 years of experience in Congress and the enthusiastic backing of the Democratic Party. Constituents will see an honest reaction to a win and imagine their future representative taking on fights in Congress with equal unjaded passion. “Such a breath of fresh air watching something other than hubris,” a Twitter user commented in the replies to the Pressley video.
Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, whose political and policy differences with Crowley were manifest if relatively slim, Pressley ran against one of the most progressive members of Congress. “We will vote the same way, but I will lead differently,” she said of Capuano in a debate. Pressley’s real-person demeanor and lived experience, not her politics, were her main selling points in her campaign to represent Massachusetts’ only district in which the majority of residents are people of color. Though she’s logged nearly a decade on the Boston City Council—a level of political experience Ocasio-Cortez does not have—she’ll be a newbie in Congress, with all the energy and optimism voters associate with first-timers. In her election-reaction video, Pressley vividly cemented her image as an everywoman rather than a cold, calculating politician, stroking a hairless cat and wearing a smug, restrained smirk. She reacted to her win the way any one of her constituents might react to winning a surprise award, or a long-shot promotion, or a sizable raffle prize.
The election-reaction video might also offer neutral ground for the sort of female emoting that’s often discouraged during political campaigns. Female candidates are warned: Talk too loudly and you’re angry; talk too softly and you’re weak; show emotion and you’re hysterical; mask your feelings and you’re frigid. When Hillary Clinton teared up at a New Hampshire café just before the state’s 2008 presidential primary, some analysts said the humanizing moment helped move voters in her direction. But others used the scene to call into question Clinton’s ability to confront, say, national security dilemmas with the necessary fortitude. The constraints placed on female candidates of color are even more severe. With their videos, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez were able to show relatable human emotion without undermining their strength. I’d say other insurgent progressive candidates should try to replicate them, but that would compromise the whole point of the election-reaction video. A visibly orchestrated moment of gratitude is a commercial. A spontaneous one is magic.