Issues & Insights

Bernie v. Biden: Brand Identity Triumphs Over Identity Politics

Like, wow. The Democratic presidential field has shrunk from the most diverse ever – in race, gender, age, background and even sexual orientation – to two old white guys duking it out.

Even, and perhaps especially, in the age of “woke,” brand identity is triumphing over identity politics.

That was the very point of the first (second, if you count JFK) great political “brand:” Barack Obama. His carefully crafted image was described as “post-political,” “post-racial,” and yes, “beyond identity politics.”

Youthful, irresistibly “cool,” and for many, an ideological blank slate, Obama would be The One ushering in “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” His rising sun logo and the independently designed “Hope” poster emerged as iconic brand symbols – equal parts aspirational and soothing in a time of social and economic turmoil.

Brand power ascended again in 2016, when a casino mogul and reality show host – whose real business was marketing one of America’s most recognized names – leveraged his notoriety to smash political norms to smithereens.

With brashness, boorishness and bad-boy – even illegal – behavior built into public expectations, The Donald could savage opponents, war heroes and judges, brag about his manhood on national TV, and even overcome shockingly sexist remarks. His disrespect for convention and reputation for shredding the Gordian knot – as in pushing through a hopelessly stalled skating rink project ahead of schedule and below cost, or abusing bankruptcy to rescue flailing ventures – resonated with “forgotten Americans” abandoned by unresponsive ruling elites in both parties.

In 2020, the two most powerful brands (though a shadow of the Obama and Trump personas) have come out on top again – overcoming, first, a tier of candidates that, to be charitable, lacked any discernible national brand presence, not to mention the ability to generate one.

Bennet, Bullock, Delaney, Gravel, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Moulton, Patrick, Ryan, Sestak, Swalwell. In a word: zzzz.

For more visible competitors, voters simply weren’t selling what they were buying, brand negatives overwhelmed positives – or both.

Julian Castro – “Section 1325?” Marianne Williamson – love and crystals? Uh huh.

Yang – too gimmicky. Kamala – too Twitter-y. Beto – too woke. Gillibrand – too #metoo. Steyer – too one-note. Tulsi – too off-the-beaten-path. Booker – too many words, too little clarity, too much Spartacus.

Two quarterfinalists garnered abundant notice, but insufficient brand traction where it counted. Amy Klobuchar was a resume candidate – but way short on resume. Did you really care how many bills she co-sponsored?

And the brand strengths that won lily-white Iowa and, almost, New Hampshire for millennial Mayor Pete – trendy gayness and content-free glibness – came up goose eggs in gaining the trust of key African-American voters.

Reaching the last two dropouts, Michael Bloomberg rapidly stood up a brand the old-fashioned way: he bought it. It almost worked – until his Rick Perry moment in Las Vegas exposed him as truly Mini-Mike, political skill-wise.

Meanwhile, the candidate last seen displaying her own prodigious talents by deftly filleting the billionaire ran smack into her own brand shortcomings. “Fauxcahontas” Warren was skewered by her well-deserved reputation for inauthenticity when she seemed too shifty by half on the costs of her budget-busting plans.

Which brings us to last two men (barely) standing: Caucasian septuagenarians Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Very simply, their brand attributes – for all their negatives – match what significant portions of the Democratic electorate want.

You know you’re a brand when everyone hears your first name – and knows who is meant. After decades when the independent Democratic Socialist was considered an oddball, a rabid base of disaffected Bernie Bros (and Sistahs) has mushroomed around his astronomically expensive notions – even as he’s earned grudging admiration from others for his earnestness, energy and staying power.

Yet to the surprise of many (including me), Bernie’s rise set off a flight to safety that revived Joe’s comatose campaign. For all his faults as a gaffe machine, nepotistic corruptocrat, plagiarist and handsy uncle slowly sliding into senility, Biden is also a down-to-earth, likable, fairly traditionalist former occupant of the second-highest office in the land – under a still popular ex-president.

After a Super Tuesday that lived up to its name, that positioning suddenly seems enough to earn the erstwhile Veep a shot in the ring against the reigning World Political Brand Champion. But don’t expect Biden’s brand strengths to fare as well against the hard shots and low blows in that arena as they did against the Democrats’ initially diverse – but ultimately droopy – field of literal “also-rans.”


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Bob Maistros

Bob Maistros, a messaging and communications strategist and crisis specialist, is of counsel with Strategic Action Public Affairs, and was chief writer for the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign, three U.S. Senators, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at bob@rpmexecutive.com.

1 comment

  • I suppose you may be limiting your branding story to elected presidents, but one presidential candidate who cultivated his brand as war hero was John McCain. Yes, I voted for the guy, and yes he endured a lot, but neither his battle record nor his behavior in captivity matched that of actual heroes. The image was extremely polished.

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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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