FORT WAYNE - The Trump 2018 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize were deemed apparently fake. It does give one an idea of the unfolding Indiana Republican senate primary that Congressman Luke Messer’s possible nomination of Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize was actually posted on his website. Except that it was sort of fake: It was to give Trump the prize if he accomplished something that is unlikely to be done (North Korea agreeing to give up its nuclear capabilities). 
 
Messer’s statement was superficially silly. But like much of politics today, it was a statement with multiple layers. Beyond the headline was a shot at former President Obama’s receipt of the Nobel for “being a charming presidential candidate” according to Messer. Since it was awarded to Obama after he had barely served, it clearly was not based upon achievement. Obama shots still have some potency in primaries. 
 
But Messer’s first line was really the only important one: “If North Korea talks lead to concrete action, President Trump should be well on his way to his own Nobel Peace Prize.” All people who understand politics know that the lead is just a plain old political maneuver to associate Messer in headlines with the president. The statement was about associative goals, not any substance at all. It was an attempt to associate with President Trump without actually doing so. Just as criticizing the Democrats’ approach to the Russian investigation is, as opposed to either stating that it is needed or should be halted. Messer clearly is seeking to add enough pro-Trump people to those who have serious doubts about Trump.   
 
Mike Braun, on the other hand, is running an unabashedly Trumpian campaign. There is no doubt that Braun is an Indiana variation of Trump. Braun is a businessman, obviously very wealthy, and also like the president, has been no Republican loyalist. Braun is also making similar Trumpian mistakes. The racial insensitivity in his Indianapolis murder ad was deliberately provocative. 
 
Congressman Rokita has shown no willingness thus far to put any light between the president and himself. Rokita and Messer have almost identical, nearly perfect conservative voting records in Congress. Their differences are ones largely of style and emphasis, though Trump’s policies on trade are beginning to drive some real cracks among conservatives - so could gun control. Not leaving some space between a candidate and this president can be incredibly risky, but Rokita is trying to appeal to Trump voters as one of them. The core of his message is that he can win because he has experience, but has not been tainted by it. It worked for Ronald Reagan, though this is not 1980 anymore.
 
Everything up until now in this senate race was market (i.e. brand) positioning that sets up paid media campaigns. Statewide campaigns are not won or lost on actual voter contact. It is impossible. Increasingly even at the congressional level, years of grassroots connections can be countered by effective television ads. Candidates even remold their lives. Past issue positions are overwhelmed by what the candidate’s ads claim those positions to be.
 
That said, I have always argued that brand positioning is the single most important factor in sales success. These early stages of pre-positioning shaped who the candidates are in the minds of the opinion-makers, as opposed to voters at large. It will become increasingly hard for the candidates to reshape them even if they desire to. The opinion-makers in this case include the media, but also include county chairmen, grassroots Republicans who attend political events, ideological activists and people who watch and consume news. As traditional media decline in reach and power, the power of opinion-leaders who pay attention (i.e., key influencers) increases. They are also nearly certain to vote in a primary.
 
Most importantly, each candidate’s brand position is pretty strongly now locked in the minds of the largest donors. Other than debates, and coverage of odd statements and mistakes, free publicity is either little or very boring. In other words, dollars will drive this race from here on out. Visits that do not re-confirm the already determined market position to those who have been watching will quickly lead to assumptions of opportunism, wishy-washiness and flip-flopping.
 
The early advertising and media strategies so far have largely reinforced the initial positioning. Braun has had a very consistent ad campaign, which he started early and has been sustaining at significant gross rating points heavily targeted at news viewers (most likely primary voters). His name identification is rising but, probably more significantly, with a consistent association. The pictures – in his business, in a factory – are worth thousands of words. He looks like what Trump claims to be: A gritty fighter, not an insider. 
 
If the election was based on just voter contact, Rokita would win in a walk. Most Hoosier Republicans have already voted for him twice. Rokita knows voters at multiple levels, whereas Messer knows people he considers important and Braun knows almost none and doesn’t seem to view it as a priority, treating voters more like employees than people who will determine his fate. However, Rokita’s declining the final debate, with evolving explanations, have hinted at his alleged prickliness which help give credibility to how his opponent’s hope to shape his image.
 
Among Messer’s first ads was one that featured his picture-perfect family that screamed upper class establishment. The contrast with Braun’s empty factory ad could not have been more jarring. Whether his campaign meant to do so or not, they positioned Messer just as Braun would like to position both Messer and Rokita: Comfortable Washingtonians.
 
With branded candidates off and running, it now becomes a matter of execution and avoiding mistakes. In this race, because each candidate is so clearly defined, the pivot points will spin around their images, a mistake, or new damaging information. 
 
It has the potential of being a cliff-hanger to primary election day, emblematic of the divided Indiana and national Republicans. However, the trend-line generally becomes apparent with about two or three weeks to go, and then very clear with a week to go (at least to insiders). It will be fascinating to watch a classic race of well-funded candidates with unique styles and positioning.

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.