The Slatest

The Flag Pin Primary: A Post-Debate Analysis of Candidates’ Lapel-Based Patriotism

Carly Fiorina’s flag pin, like the rest of her debate game, was on this Thursday night in Cleveland.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After the 2016 presidential debate season kicked off Thursday night with two rounds of Republican preening, posturing, and pontification, millions of Americans were left with the same question: Can we entrust the future of this nation to someone who wears a suit devoid of patriotic bling?

The donning of the flag pin is a sacred ritual, a way for politicians to demonstrate a love for America that might otherwise be in doubt. Its importance was only reinforced by the completely proportional scandals caused by then-Sen. Barack Obama questioning the pin tradition’s validity in 2007 and Mitt Romney wearing one defaced with a cartoonish GOP elephant in 2012. Still, a shocking number of the candidates Thursday night failed to execute a critical element of their debate prep: acquiring the tiny piece of embossed metal that could be the key to convincing voters they deserve the reins of power.

At the 5:00 kids’ table debate, undisputed winner Carly Fiorina had a standard flag pin of the “rippled by invisible breeze” variety, uncontroversial and unobtrusive. Excellent choice.



Two of her fellow JV-squad members had pins, but couldn’t resist trying to gussy up Old Glory with something else: Rick Santorum’s appeared to be the same elephant model that got Mitt Romney in trouble and Bobby Jindal’s included the Louisiana state flag. Four candidates had no visible pin at all.

There are some shockingly naked lapels in this photo.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At the grownup debate, the numbers were slightly better: seven out of 10 candidates had their love for America on their lapels in some form. For New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, it might also symbolize his love of litigation: the New Jersey-shaped stars-and-stripes pin he wears has brought the prospect of legal action against him from his state bar association, which copyrighted the pin’s design years ago and doesn’t like Christie sending a version of them to his donors.



Marco Rubio’s pin was the most generically reassuring specimen seen at either debate: a rectangle anchored stage left on his suit, a standard-issue patriotic bobble that said You can sleep well knowing I have the launch codes.



Three of the so-called top tier candidates came on stage apparently totally pinless, each more inexplicable than the last. Ted Cruz is a sitting senator and Mike Huckabee has run for president before, meaning they should each have added secret backup-pin pockets to all of their suits. And John Kasich! After barely edging out Rick Perry to grab the 10th slot onstage, we’d have assumed he’d do everything possible to make himself look more reputable.

L-R: Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and John Kasich, only one of whom had the good sense to declare his allegiance to the United States with jewelry Thursday night. 


The overall flag pin tally for Thursday’s GOP field: 10 out of 17.

Free tip for flagless 2016 hopefuls: the next time a veteran or a county chair tries to pass you an American flag pin on the campaign trail, treat it like an offer of a breath mint. If someone’s handing you one, it means you need it.