How the 2020 Presidential Frontrunners Are Using Music as a Marketing Tool

We break down their audio strategies, from playlists to rally songs to TV

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Donald Trump
For these candidates, music choice is about bringing their political brand to life.
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

Picture this. You’re sitting in your metal folding chair, the air buzzing with energy. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blasts from the loudspeakers: “They just use your mind and they never give you credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

Elizabeth Warren walks onto the stage waving, and the crowd erupts. Some people cry. Some sing along with the song, which they might not have given a second thought to just a year or two prior but has now come to represent Warren.

Presidential candidates have to market themselves to relate to voters, and one of the ways they do that is through music and audio, from the soundtracks in their TV and social media spots to their walk-up songs at rallies and the curated playlists they share on apps like Spotify.

Candidates have at least one song they’re known by—ideally. The goal is to personalize their brand and show voters a more authentic side of themselves. If their music marketing efforts are successful, voters will be able to hear a certain song, or even a certain genre of music (see Bill de Blasio and ska), and think of that candidate.

“Music is a universal language that connects us all,” said Richard Smith, principal creative director at branding agency Sullivan. “It’s emotional, makes us feel good, lifts us up when we’re down or helps us vent when we want to express how we really feel but just can’t.”

Music decisions typically result in one of three outcomes for candidates: Voters make no connection between a candidate and a song, voters associate the candidate with the chosen song or the correlation between candidate and song doesn’t translate as intended. And there’s a fine line between a playlist that makes a statement and one that that focuses solely on making sure personality shines through.

Video: Dianna McDougall; Sources: C-SPAN

“Music choice is not about personal taste or simply using your latest drive-time fave,” Smith said. “What it’s really about is using something that brings your political brand to life.”

While there are still eight Democrats and two Republicans left in the race, as of publication, for simplicity’s sake, we’re breaking down the song choices of the current 2020 frontrunners: President Trump, former Vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg.

Rally songs

Candidates’ rally songs are meant to represent them as a brand. A walk-up song should illustrate the candidate’s message while also sharing a little of their personality.

“In an event like a rally, the music can fire up the crowd and make it a more emotional and memorable experience,” said Mikko Matikka, marketing and content manager at global audio branding service Audiodraft. “Choosing a suitable walk-in and walk-out song is a very tangible way of introducing the candidate’s agenda because those two moments are key to how people remember the experience in the long run.”

However, when it comes to using audio, a lot of candidates struggle to carve out a unique brand. For the most part, they lean on songs that showcase their personality and since none of the candidates are working specifically with an artist to craft a song that represents them as a whole, most of the songs end up falling flat as a marketing tool.

According to branding expert Ilan Geva, “Not a single presidential candidate has a sonic mark or an audio brand label. None of them come to mind if I think of any musician or music group, be it rock, military or patriotic music or any other audio brand.”

In a race that at one point had almost 30 Democratic candidates, Geva noted, “they are trying to find their own souls, and the music didn’t find them yet.”

Trump: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones in 2016

During his first run for president, Trump used this track as his walk-up song and still uses it in 2020 as his walk-off song. It’s instantly familiar for Trump’s supporters, and it’s easy to sing along to. While fun and recognizable, it also has a bit of an aggressive message that can be seen as a pointed commentary on how liberal voters approached the 2016 election.

According to Matikka, “[The lyrics] encapsulate the initial optimism and eventual disillusion, followed by the resigned pragmatism.” It was a good fit for his 2016 campaign because “it appealed to voters with a highly pragmatic worldview.”

Trump: “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood in 2020

This track is a better fit for what Trump’s supporters expect from the president and his rallies. It encompasses their values and demands, and the country genre is one that’s popular among Trump’s constituency.

“It’s optimistic and inspirational. It’s about family. It conjures up feelings that are all bout traditional and deeply felt warm American values. It gives homage and shares gratitude to the military men and women and their families,” said Joel Beckerman, founder of sonic studio Man Made Music. ” Supporters feel the Trump political movement in this song. … And most importantly, it resonates deeply with the Trump brand—both musically and lyrically.”

Biden: “We Take Care of Our Own” by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is another quintessential Americana artist who fits right in with all the other choices on Biden’s playlist. It’s political, with references to Hurricane Katrina and the flag, but not overly political. It was also former President Barack Obama’s 2012 walk-up song, so using it is a nod to his former boss and can be interpreted as a promise to continue Obama’s legacy.

“The song is simultaneously progressive, driving, relentless, yet timeless and reminds people what we may have lost along the way,” Beckerman said. “It’s a battle cry to reconnect with the values of America where we help people in need and move forward together.”

While a good song to walk out to, Beckerman noted, “this song seems like it would be more appropriate for Sen. Sanders.”

Warren: “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

Parton’s hit is an upbeat feminist anthem, which is certainly fitting, especially for a woman so rooted in her own history of climbing the ranks and overcoming hardships to get where she is today. However, Matikka pointed out, Warren could have made a stronger, more actionable choice as “the song merely points out there’s an inequality problem but doesn’t really take the next step in inspiring change.”

Beckerman echoed that sentiment, saying, “All in all, I’m not sure it does much for the senator’s brand as a disrupter on the side of the American worker.”

On top of that, Parton has been vocal about not being on board with Warren using the track at her rallies. In a statement to the Associated Press, Parton’s manager said, “We did not approve the request, and we do not approve requests like this of [a] political nature.”

Sanders: “America” by Simon and Garfunkel in 2016

Sanders went the patriotic route in 2016 with his walk-up song, which is a bit counterproductive to his campaign that promised to shake up the status quo and fight against the system. Ultimately, the song didn’t feel tied to the brand Sanders was perpetuating.

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