Why You Should Just Wear The Sweater

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia Commons)

I'll never forget Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential campaign. It's not a campaign that I worked on - in fact, I was a registered Democrat during the 2012 GOP Primaries - but as a new Catholic adult convert, I keenly remember being moved by Senator Santorum's unapologetic public witness to his faith.

I also keenly remember the hallmark of that campaign: the sweater vest.

Now, I don't know the origin story of the Santorum Sweater Vest. That was before my time. But I know that it became synonymous with the man himself: a shorthand for his personality, frugality, conservatism, and fatherliness.

The Sweater Vest resonated with people because it felt authentic. Like the MAGA hats that succeeded it, the vest felt real-that rarest of qualities in political campaigning.

In a sea of generic politicians, Rick Santorum was a quirky, sweater-vest wearing, Catholic dad authentically sharing his story with the voters. And the voters rewarded that authenticity by awarding him more than 3 million votes and the second-most delegates at the convention.

So when, in 2016, I was unexpectedly offered the opportunity to work on the Senator's campaign team as he sought the 2016 Republican nomination for president, you can imagine how pumped I was. But in 2016, things were different.

The authentic, sweater-vest Santorum had been replaced by a more polished, more "presidential" Santorum-poll-tested and consultant-managed to "correct" for the perceived weaknesses that cost him the nomination a cycle earlier.

Photo: Former Senator Rick Santorum
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia Commons)

The senator's "Catholic Dad on Donut Sunday" look had been replaced by a power suit and an unbuttoned collar.

This all came into focus for me when, on a conference call, the team found itself in a discussion of whether - and when - the senator should don his trademark "sweater vest" on the trail in Iowa. What came so naturally and unassumingly to the candidate in 2012 had now become just another brand detail to be discussed, debated, and tested.

The senator's primary appeal-his authenticity-was gone. And perhaps not coincidentally, so was much of his appeal to voters. Senator Santorum ultimately withdrew from the 2016 GOP Primaries on February 3, 2016, having secured just 16,000 votes.

Mind you: these changes were all well-intentioned. Everyone was trying to do what was best for the candidate; everyone was trying to win. But bit-by-bit, through a series of seemingly minor pivots, they had drifted away from the very things that made him who he was.

During that 2016 campaign, I was fortunate enough to participate in an all-day strategy and planning meeting at the Senator's home in northern Virginia. During that day, I met him, his wife, and his children and I can say without reservation that they were all delightful, kind people. I can also say without a doubt that, in the comfort of his home, the senator sure felt to me like a guy who'd rather wear a sweater vest than a navy blazer.

People love authenticity - in part because it's so rare in our modern, ad- and data-driven marketing environment.

Like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, Rick Santorum was seen in 2012 as a raw, authentic guy running against a poll-tested animatronic opponent. For Santorum, the robo-candidate was Mitt Romney. For Sanders/Trump, it was Hillary Clinton. Both ran presidential campaigns cut from the same poll-tested cloth. And when their opponents embraced their quirky authenticity, they excelled.

In this new world of live video, ever-present photography, and social media, the voters "bullshit detectors" have gotten pretty good.

For me, the lesson of the 2016 campaign cycle was simple: be yourself. Or rather, encourage, empower, and trust your candidates to be themselves.