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Branding in Runs for President

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.