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Branding in Runs for President

Thoughts on branding in presidential politics.

With the race now down to two candidates, it’s worth looking back. Why didn’t the other candidates get traction?

The main thing a candidate needs is a brand. But that brand has to be anchored in who they are, in their story. They aren’t starting from scratch.

You don’t get to pick who you are, but you do get to brand it. You get to emphasize the things that matter. And you also get to create your message, your style of campaign. You can have an angry campaign, a friendly campaign, whatever kind. That’s something that doesn’t have to be who you have been for years. The campaign part of it is new. It can be what you need.

There’s policy. It matters, but mostly as a sample for how you will approach issues. There are lanes—moderate, progressive, trade, populist, whatever. But you can build your own lane, if you approach it the right way. That’s the main goal of the brand: to stake out a path that runs by as many voters’ houses as you can.

None of that is to say the also-rans did not have good points. But they often failed to get that basic branding down. Which is also not to say that Biden and Sanders did.

You go to the grocery store, looking for some new breakfast cereal. You check the options, try some free samples, and walk out with the same old box of cereal. That doesn’t mean you love that cereal, or that its brand won you over again. It just means you didn’t find what you wanted, so you continued on with what you’re used to until something better comes along.

The biggest problem with running for president is that you have to make a lot of noise. Bloomberg dumped hundreds of millions of dollars in noisemaking. But his noise did not carry very much. For Sanders, his followers make a lot of noise, but they often piss off the neighbors.

That’s particularly true in a crowded field. The most recognizable members of a crowd are those on the ends or edges. Surprise: Sanders and Biden were, at least in some measure, at the edges of the crowd.

The goal of the brand for a campaign, particularly a crowded one where making lots of noise isn’t really a sound strategy (unless you can really crank the decibels up to massive levels) is to find a new edge of the crowd to be at. Something that makes people say “Okay, all those are the same, but this one is over here doing something different.”

So for now it looks like the party is going with the leading brand: Biden. Sanders still has a shot. As does a no-majority outcome. It’s up to the voters to decide if Sanders’ brand is stronger, if they find them about equal, or if the leading brand it is.

One issue is, in the South, the Democrats are largely anchored toward the moderate side of things by the Republicans’ strength. They don’t see the field from the same viewpoint, and so the brands are distorted from where they stand. At least part of the remedy is for national Democrats to look to strengthen state Democrats in the South, so that they can better see the field and vote for more progressive options.

The election comes in 34 weeks.

Trump Naming

Why the right nickname for Donald Trump is simply Donald Trump.

The phenomena of Trump dishing out negative branding through nicknaming his political opponents is one of the more ridiculous aspects of his 2016 campaign. Thus far, Trump himself does not have a Trump-style name of his own, and that’s probably for the best. Trump’s own brand is its own brand, for good or ill. Trying to name him something would only narrow the focus of his unsavoriness to one limited aspect.

You could call him “Lyin’ Donald,” an off-shoot of his name for Cruz, but he’s also very much a “Liddle Donald” (what he called Rubio), a petty man in many ways. You could tack “Crazy” to him, as he’s done to Sanders, but with the revelations of Trump U, he’s apparently also “Crooked” (his term for Clinton).

Or maybe you go for the kitchen sink approach and dub him “Lyin’ Widdle Crooked Crazy Donald.” That’s too much of a mouthful. Plus, it lacks whatever name he inevitably tags onto President Obama (maybe we’ll throw “Slacker” in there for now, since he’s had plenty of time to brand Obama and hasn’t done so).

No, rather than calling him “Tabloid Donald” for his affinity for trash journalism (and trashing journalists), or “Trumpelstiltskin” for trying to spin bullshit into gold, or “Prima Donald” for his vanity, all of which would be accurate enough, we should just call him Donald Trump, because that’s the only name that could embody all of the ignorant and wicked aspects of him.

Sure, if he were a villain in Batman, he might be called “The Swindler,” and if he were a DJ, he’d be “DJ Trump… Trump… Trump…” because he’s such a broken record on so many issues, but choosing any one particular name, “Trashmouth Donald” or “Hapless Donald” or “Dastardly Donald,” it just would not really get to the heart of the matter. It would inevitably leave out so many parts of this despicable figure of politics in 2016.

With the tactic of “will not say,” for example, he jabs below the belt like the 1943 Warner Brothers cartoon “To Duck….or not To Duck”, where Daffy Duck fights Elmer Fudd. The duck referee wants a clean fight, and so demonstrates on Fudd the moves that are barred, which Daffy then also demonstrates, leaving Fudd clobbered before the fight begins. That’s Trump, but how do you put a name on that?

And how do you name his repeated insistence that he has some infallible plan to tackle some hairy, intractable issue, and yet he will only reveal it if he is in fact elected president. Do we even have a word for that, other than bullshit?

We could call him a flip-flopper (“Take-backsy Donald?”) or a human pretzel (“Dlanodon?”) for repeatedly reversing himself, sometimes intra-paragraph, or for bending the truth so much that one begins to construct non-Euclidean sketches to try to make sense, but that leaves out his fervent denial of science, his wont for conspiracy, his complete lack of understanding of the Constitution, and so on.

Hanging just one word on him, however much it might seem to be a convenient branding move, could never do as well as well as knowing him by his own name, and knowing all the foibles and hobgoblins that name stands for. Donald Trump is Donald Trump, which is just worse than any other name we could try to add.