Why the Tiger King Lost the Election

On June 26th, 2018, Oklahoma Libertarians voted on who they wanted as their gubernatorial nominee. One of the candidates on their ballot was Joe Exotic, now known across the country from the docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix. Despite his local notoriety and a personality that has made the show about him an unqualified success, Exotic finished a distant third in that primary. He had more name recognition, more resources, and a personal following built up over several years as a the highly visible operator of the G. W. Zoo. Running in a closed primary, Exotic could focus on the roughly six thousand registered Libertarians who would be the only ones eligible to vote in the race. With these advantages, and no public awareness of the criminal charges to come, why wasn’t he able to be more competitive? As one of the participants in this election, and the eventual nominee, I believe there are three main factors. Merely being able to get attention does not necessarily translate into support, campaigns with more resources can be beaten by those that make better use of their resources, and communicating directly to voters remains the most effective way to campaign.

While most of America learned of the existence of the Tiger King watching Netflix while cooped up due to COVID-19, most of Oklahoma had heard of his exploits prior to that. He had made news due to the mauling of Kelci Saffrey, the lawsuit with Carole Baskin, the fire that burned down his studio and killed the alligators that had formerly been owned by Michael Jackson, and other incidents. Just during the gubernatorial campaign he made headlines due to the death of his husband Travis Maldonado and the car wreck that landed him in the hospital for several days. His primary opponents received little notice from the press. For those who believe that all publicity is good publicity, the election results seem to contradict that view. Despite his ability to get attention, Exotic’s flamboyant personality did not translate to votes. A great many people were entertained by his candidacy but felt no desire to cast a ballot for him. There may be an exception here or there but generally speaking, being the most outrageous candidate is not a pathway to election victory.

According to Jeff Lowe, Exotic made use of funds and supplies of the zoo for his campaign, something that I and others suspected at the time. This is illegal but wasn’t investigated, partially because it wasn’t clear that Exotic was gaining much benefit and an investigation might only have given him even more publicity and ramp up his claims that he was being unfairly persecuted. It appeared that his chief means of outreach was to post videos to his JoeExoticTV Youtube channel. The campaign also gave out Joe Exotic branded condoms, magnets, and other geegaws and provided anyone who asked a Joe Exotic t-shirt along with a registration form so voters could switch their party affiliation to Libertarian. The shirts were very popular with some, the party switching was less so. The yard signs were hilariously useless. They must have cost better than ten dollars each, with a tiger striped background that would blend in with surroundings and swallowed up the lettering of the candidate’s name. But while they might not have stood out, it’s not like a lot of people saw them. The Powell campaign only spotted one Joe Exotic yard sign “in the wild.” Another wasteful expense was the billboard put up in Tulsa. Joe didn’t finish any better there than he did statewide.

In contrast, while his opponents certainly sought to make use of social media, Rex Lawhorn visited virtually every county in the state holding meet & greet events while Chris Powell knocked on over a thousand doors of registered Libertarians statewide and volunteers reached hundreds more. These boots-on-the-ground strategies were far more cost-effective and led to meaningful contact with voters that simply could not be generated by watching videos online. There certainly were enthusiastic Joe Exotic supporters to be found, but nearly all were young people who seemed to be responding to the entertainment value of his campaign, not issues. Much like in presidential politics, the ‘fun’ candidates generate a lot more talk than they do votes. The candidates who win are those who have a message that resonates with voters and are able to communicate that message to large numbers of those voters.

Map by MuskogeePolitico.com

Roughly 55% of registered Libertarians showed up to vote on June 26th, 2018, a higher percentage than for the other two parties for their primaries. A main motivation for voters to get to the polls was the presence of State Question 788 on the ballot, which would make marijuana legal for medical use. A lot of the voters did not really care about the gubernatorial race, a factor that should benefit candidates with greater name recognition. Yet despite his minor celebrity status Joe Exotic only won three counties, Garvin where the zoo is located and where his parents and some employees had changed their registration at his behest, Tillman where Joe received both Libertarian votes that were cast there, and Bryan where he took nine of twenty ballots. In the end, more resources, more press, and a more flamboyant persona are factors that didn’t matter or perhaps were actively harmful. The vast majority of voters want serious policy discussion and a candidate they aren’t embarrassed to support. It takes effort and skill to communicate those qualities to the right people at the right time to get the right result on election day.

Chris is a former chair of the Oklahoma Libertarian Party and in 2018 was the first LP nominee for Governor in the state.

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