Donald Trump made headlines time and time again for making up insulting nicknames for any political rivals, but how effective of a campaign strategy was that? A study published in the Journal of Political Marketing aims to answer that question.
American politicians often fight dirty and insulting nicknames are nothing new to politics. Despite this, many people feel that Donald Trump took attacking his opponents to a new extreme. His infamous nicknaming started with “Crooked Hillary” during his first election, and he moved on to “Sleepy Joe” for the 2020 race. Despite the attention this political ploy garnered in the media, there is no research on the effectiveness of the strategy, which is what this study seeks to address.
Tyler Johnson conducted a survey experiment to explore this topic. He distributed the survey to 674 participants in the 48-hours after the Republican National Convention in 2020, in hopes that awareness of Trump’s strategies would be particularly high. Participants were randomly assigned to either the control or the treatment group. Control participants first answered questions about Biden while the treatment group first were introduced to material considering Trump’s effort to nickname Biden. All participants were asked to recall nicknames Trump had given to previous political rivals.
Results showed that only 37% of participants accurately remembered any of the nicknames Trump gave Biden throughout his campaign efforts. Participants who reported they were interested in politics or voted in the primaries were more likely to remember a nickname. Subject’s frequency of media consumption did not have a significant relationship with remembering, nor did political party.
The effectiveness of the “Sleepy Joe” nickname was evaluated by asking participants the extent to which they agree with it describing Biden. The most common answer was “not well at all” and participants who answered “very well” or “extremely well” were people who reported being Republicans and approving of the job Trump was doing as president. 53% of participants thought “Sleepy Joe” was a negative nickname, which is just over half, suggesting that the branding may not have been taken as negatively as Trump had meant it. The treatment group, who had been asked to consider the “Sleepy Joe” nickname, was no more likely to think Biden was old or unenergetic than the control group.
This research takes first steps into considering the effectiveness of Trump’s strategy of nicknaming his political opponents. Some limitations of this study include that it is impossible to tell with this design if the results we are seeing are a reflection of Trump’s strategy or on Biden as a politician. It is possible different results may have arisen had this focused on the “Crooked Hillary” nickname instead. Furthermore, while nicknaming has been a long-used political tool, Trump was a more divisive politician than most, and it is possible research in regard to him would not generalize to other politicians.
The study, “Sleepy Joe? Recalling and Considering Donald Trump’s Strategic Use of Nicknames“, was published June 15, 2021.