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18 September 2020

“Sleepy Joe” is no “Crooked Hillary”: data suggests Trump’s 2020 strategy is falling apart

Trump’s nickname for Clinton conceptualised all that she was to a lot of Americans. The same cannot be said for “Sleepy Joe”.

By Ben Walker

Donald Trump’s slogans, nicknames and quips were a major feature of his 2016 presidential run. However, Google search data shows he is struggling to make the same impact this year.

Political slogans can make a huge difference in shaping voter perceptions of the issues at stake in an election. In Britain in recent times, one can think of the Labour Party’s “Cost of Living Crisis” or Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done”: simple themes that broke through and caught the attention of the politically disengaged.

Judging the wider impact of a slogan beyond its numbing effect on journalists and political junkies can be achieved either through a focus group or, failing that, by gauging its presence in the public’s lexicon, as measured on social media and the internet at large.

In the US, Trump has form for peppering a campaign with catchy quips. In 2016 he reintroduced to the world “Make America Great Again”, and regularly dreamt up cutting nicknames for his opponents, often to great effect.

[see also: Why Donald Trump isn’t Hitler – he poses a new threat]

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“Crooked Hillary”, the phrase he attached to Hillary Clinton, his final opponent, struck a chord with the public in a way that helped to shape the campaign. It encapsulated so much of what so many Americans thought about Clinton, but who until then hadn’t cared enough to properly conceptualise their feelings about her. 

One of the most googled remarks from the 2016 presidential debates was Trump’s quip about putting Clinton in jail, which proved a defining line of the second debate on 9 October 2016. On the day after the debate there were more searches in 13 states for the quote than there were searches on the economy or immigration.

Searches for Trump’s jail comment overtook searches for immigration and the economy in many states
Google search data in the immediate aftermath of the second 2016 presidential debate

The president’s rhetorical impact in 2016 was of a scale that pop stars would envy. But four years on, with an election less than seven weeks away, can the same be said again? Are the quips and nicknames now employed by the incumbent Republican of the same calibre and impact?

Joe Biden, if elected in November, would be sworn in at the age of 78, becoming the oldest person ever to become president in US history. His long service as senator, vice-president and now presidential candidate has earned him a growing reputation for gaffes and low-energy performances, compilations of which are only a few clicks away online. Trump sensed a nickname opportunity and came up with “Sleepy Joe”.

[see also: How Joe Biden could still lose the US presidential election]

The search data shows that “Sleepy Joe” isn’t, however, generating the same buzz or volume of traffic as “Crooked Hillary”. Of the week ending 13 September, “Sleepy Joe’ has racked up just 14 per cent of the volume that clicked for “Crooked Hillary” at its peak.

More people in 2016 were searching for “Little Marco” (another creation of Trump’s, for 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio) than people are today for “Sleepy Joe”. And not only that, but at moments, searches for the Democratic candidate’s nickname are of a similar volume to those for “Lying Ted”, Trump’s nickname for another Republican rival from 2016, Ted Cruz.

Sleepy Joe is no Crooked Hillary
Data from Google Trends shows Sleepy Joe isn’t as resonant with Americans as Crooked Hillary in 2016

Volume figures seen is relative to the June 2016 peak for ‘Crooked Hillary’

In order for such tactics to work, voters need to have a preconceived impression of a candidate that a campaign can tease out with the right messaging. In the case of Hillary Clinton, a candidate already unpopular with most Americans, Trump’s strategy paid dividends. The groundwork had already been lain, and many Americans were already incensed by her.

But in the case of Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate with greater appeal than Clinton both to his own progressive base and to Trump’s legions of non-college-educated whites, the strategy, so far at least, appears to be hitting the buffers.

See the New Statesman’s US presidential polling tracker here

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