Voters may not have the option of using the “who would you rather have a beer with?” test this election to decide among the presidential candidates.
That’s because at least four people vying for the White House abstain from alcohol: President Trump, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary under President Barack Obama.
Trump has called his alcohol abstinence “one of my only good traits” and said that if he had ever drunk he would be “the world’s worst.” As vice president, Biden brought a nonalcoholic beer to Obama’s closely watched 2009 “Beer Summit” on race relations. Castro’s drink of choice is iced tea — and not the Long Island kind. “I’ve never had a drink in my life,” Booker tweeted in 2017.
Other candidates, however, are willing to use booze as a campaign prop. On New Year’s Eve, Massachusett’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Instagram viewers to “hang on a sec I’m gonna get me a beer” as she proceeded to crack open and sip on a Michelob Ultra. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has fundraised off her love of whiskey, and her staff posted a clip in April of her playing beer pong, although the cups appeared to be filled with water. Gillibrand also tended bar at an Iowa gay pride event, at one point taking a sip of alcohol and shouting, “Gay rights!”
“I think that does speak to the idea that politicians have kind of always used alcohol in this safe kind of way to relate to people,” said Jarrett Dieterle, author of the forthcoming book Drink for Your Country and an alcohol policy expert at the R Street Institute, a research organization that promotes free market and limited government. “I think that is something that is always done … It’s seen as a social lubricant that appeals across the masses.”
While candidates are hitting the campaign trail sober, there is a lot of drinking going on in the periphery. Candidates regularly host town halls or fundraisers at breweries and bars. They are celebrated at cocktail soirees, and wine flows freely at high-dollar fundraising dinners. A similar atmosphere awaits them in booze-soaked Washington, D.C., where a high-stress culture comes with hard partying and hangovers.
An estimated 66 million adults and teens, or a quarter of the U.S. population, report they have engaged in binge drinking at least once in the previous month. Still, not drinking isn’t terribly unusual: Roughly one-third of adults in America say they abstain from alcohol.
“It is not too surprising that some candidates do not consume alcohol, it’s a reflection of our society,” said Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council. “Approximately 65% of U.S. adult consumers drink alcohol, and that has been fairly constant for decades.”
Many past presidents have been drinkers. President Richard Nixon drank through the Watergate scandal and was known to “drunk dial,” and Lyndon Johnson would drink scotch while driving on his ranch. Still, being a nondrinker is not unheard of. George W. Bush quit drinking after a 40th birthday binge about 15 years before becoming president.
But the current roster of nondrinkers haven’t personally struggled with alcohol. Biden doesn’t drink because of alcoholism in his family. Castro opened up in his autobiography about how his mother put aside excessive drinking to focus on raising him and his twin, Joaquin, a Texas congressman who also doesn’t drink.
Booker explained in a 2013 interview with New York Magazine that in high school he frequently took care of his friends when they had one too many. “And then 21 hit and I realized, ‘You know what? I don’t need alcohol.’ It’s a variable. And I’ve got an equation in my life where I don’t really want another variable in my equation,” he said.
Trump has said his brother Fred’s alcoholism, which led to an early death, influenced his decision not to drink and has made him more understanding of addiction.
But the president isn’t seen as likely to go after other people’s drinking habits. In his youth, Trump made appearances at New York nightclubs, and the real estate and business empire he built included casinos, a winery, and vodka. As president, the tax overhaul Trump signed into law contained a break for brewers, and he signed another measure that repealed the prohibition of distilleries on tribal land.
The candidates who do drink have varying attitudes toward alcohol. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is an Episcopalian, gives up alcohol and meat every year for Lent. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has called beer the “beautiful amber nectar of the gods.”
Beto O’Rourke was arrested at age 26 for driving drunk and hitting another car. Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who is running against Trump for the Republican nomination, reportedly appeared drunk in public in the 1990s. Trump wasn’t afraid to bring it up in 2016 when Weld called him a fascist. “I don’t talk about his alcoholism,” he said through a spokeswoman.
Amy Klobuchar drew national attention due to a hearing involving the consequences of overdrinking. In a testy exchange with Brett Kavanaugh, the Democrat from Minnesota asked whether the then-Supreme Court nominee had ever blacked out. Kavanaugh irritably replied, “Have you?” before apologizing later.
Klobuchar replied, “When you have a parent that’s an alcoholic, you’re pretty careful about drinking.”
As a presidential candidate, Klobuchar used the experience of her father’s recovery to advance her proposal for combating addiction. At the same time, she hasn’t shied away from delivering alcohol-related zingers. During one of the debates, she criticized Trump’s policies on drug prices, saying, “That’s what we call at home all foam no beer.”
The candidate with the most anti-alcohol record is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who banned alcohol advertising on city property and launched media campaigns against excessive drinking. Members of de Blasio’s family, including his daughter, have struggled with alcohol.
While presidential candidates haven’t laid out policies to specifically restrict alcohol, administrations have other, more subtle ways to affect drinking policy and public attitudes. Trump’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended limiting hours and locations for alcohol sales.
Under Obama, the surgeon general issued a report that recommended reducing problem drinking in states through restrictions, which, like the Trump administration guidelines, would also hit people who only drink occasionally. The CDC under Obama’s tenure also issued a controversial guidance saying women of childbearing age shouldn’t drink alcohol unless they are also on birth control.
“The health agencies are working conspicuously but it’s there … If you pay attention to the news it’s out there if you watch for it, but I would like to see a lot more emphasis, especially on the economic impact,” said Jim Hedges, who was the Prohibition Party’s 2016 presidential nominee and is treasurer of the Prohibition National Committee. The latest CDC data, from 2010, shows excessive drinking costs the U.S. $ 249 billion a year.
An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, but there have also been improved outcomes in the United States when it comes to problem drinking. Underage drinking, including college binge drinking, is at record lows, and drunken driving deaths account for 29% of overall driving deaths, the lowest percentage since 1982.
Hedges, who would prefer one of the Democrats over Trump, said that he views the personal example of the candidates’ alcohol abstinence as a positive development. He said he was irritated by political ads that encourage voters to donate to campaigns in exchange for having a drink with candidates, citing campaign spots from Warren and Hillary Clinton.
“As far as setting an example, it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.
Sarah Ward, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, believes it could be meaningful and “wonderful” for candidates to talk more about their decision not to drink. Rather than affect public policy, she said it might instead motivate voters who are thinking about quitting alcohol.
Both groups’ focus has shifted from government prohibition to personal prohibition, and they use studies about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy, as well as studies linking alcohol to cancer, to argue that drinking is hazardous to health.
“There is this idea that to fit in and to be popular you must drink, yet you have all of these people who are trying to get the highest office in the land who are not drinkers,” Ward said.
She added, “Anybody that’s in the limelight — if they speak out about not drinking or not needing to drink — it certainly cant hurt.”
Emily Larsen contributed.