Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Search for a Slogan

What Hillary, Jeb, Rand, and the rest could learn from the history of campaign catchphrases

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 22nd, 2015

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U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week, he discusses the history of campaign slogans and what past examples could teach 2016 contenders. This article originally appeared in Politico Magazine on Jan. 19, 2015.

After the column appeared Monday, we solicited slogan suggestions via e-mail and Twitter. Here are some of the best ones, all tongue-in-cheek:

For Mitt Romney: “The Third Time Is a Charm.” — @Libslady. John Cassidy of The New Yorker had a similar slogan for Romney, and added this for Jeb Bush: “Third Bush Is a Charm.”

Rick Moore had another Bush suggestion: “Because It’s My Turn.”

For Hillary Clinton: “It’s the Same Old Song.” — Don Lovett

For Chris Christie: “A Bridge to Prosperity.” — Michael Markus

For any potential GOP candidate: “Things Go Better with Koch.” — Estefan Zorrow

For any candidate not named Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton: “None of My Relatives Have Ever Been President.” — Dave Bethke

We received many devilishly clever and funny submissions, for which we thank our tweeps and readers, but alas, most were a bit too harsh or obscene to meet the Crystal Ball’s publishing standards.

The Editors

With the dawn of the new year, the campaigns for president are moving into high gear, at least in private. Strategies are being fine-tuned, consultants and staff are being hired, donors are choosing sides. But no campaign ought to ignore the crucial element of a good slogan.

Oh, the superficiality of it all! That’s what the sophisticates say. Yet a well-chosen phrase can power a candidate if the words ring true and connect to the theme of the election. Slogans are simplistic and manufactured, but the best ones fire up the troops and live on in history.

Even candidates as well-known as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush can benefit from a defining catchphrase. The last time she ran for president, then-Sen. Clinton used “The Strength and Experience to Bring Real Change.” That was workmanlike — and boring. At least for the ’16 Democratic contest, she’d be better off with “Let’s Make History Again” coupled with the Helen Reddy tune “I Am Woman.” Don’t forget, about 57% of Democratic presidential primary voters are women. For the general election, if President Barack Obama continues his recent climb in the polls, Clinton might adopt “Keep a Good Thing Going” or — to drive Republicans nuts — she might steal the 1982 Ronald Reagan midterm mantra, “Stay the Course.” If Obama’s popularity nosedives again, Hillary might want to revamp Bill Clinton’s 1992 anthem from Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t Stop Thinking About the Nineties.”

As for Jeb, he might want to try out “Not My Brother’s Keeper” — at least subliminally. He truly needs to be more Jeb than Bush as he attempts to achieve a historically unprecedented family three-peat. The word “conservative” needs to be prominent, given that so many voters in the GOP base think he isn’t. Terms to be avoided at all costs: immigration, common, and core.

More ideological candidates probably have an advantage in sloganeering because they can use hot-button terms with less risk. Should Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge Clinton in the Democratic primary, her slogan writes itself: “Main Street, Not Wall Street.” If she wants to be bolder, there’s the tried-and-true “Keep the Big Boys Honest,” which was a favorite of populists from Virginia to Washington state in the 1960s and ’70s. (“Boys” is sexist, perhaps, but a woman could get away with it, especially considering that a large majority of Wall Street moguls are male.)

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s anti-interventionist foreign policy might lead him to “America First!” Of course, he’d have to distinguish his more nuanced views from those of the America First Committee, which formed in 1940 to keep the United States out of World War II and had 800,000 dues-paying members (including two future presidents, John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford). The committee was disbanded three days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

If outsiders could write a few whimsical slogans for the contenders, we might pick “Never Give Up,” should Mitt Romney follow through on his musings and run for a third time. Like so many politicians before him, Romney proves that the only cure for White House fever is a cozy underground pine cabin.

For the blunt-spoken New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, “Sit Down and Shut up” would be the gubernatorial quote of choice. Those watchwords would certainly be wiser than “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or, even worse, “Join America’s Team” — though it might help Christie in Texas.

Ex-Sen. Jim Webb would certainly prefer his old standby, “Born Fighting,” which also publicizes one of his books. Still, “I hate politics as much as you do” would suit Webb better, and perhaps have more appeal to a cynical public.

Frivolity aside, the candidates’ teams will undoubtedly do much better in rolling out their mottos as the year progresses. Political slogans aren’t normally copyrighted or trademarked, so they might possibly want to borrow something successful from America’s past.

Presidential sloganeering started inauspiciously with the Whigs’ “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” in 1840. Old Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison, died after a month in the White House, leaving almost the entire term to the slogan’s afterthought, John Tyler.

Slogans got wordier and somewhat more obscure. One of America’s worst presidents, Franklin Pierce, ran in 1852 on “We Polked you in ’44, we shall Pierce you in ’52.” Like Pierce, President James K. Polk was a Democrat — but one who left a much more significant record of accomplishments than Pierce.

The most durable presidential campaign slogan of the 19th century was Abraham Lincoln’s, in his 1864 reelection. “Don’t swap horses in midstream” was also used by his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1944 to argue against changing commanders in chief while a war was ongoing.

Lincoln’s successor plus one, Union commanding general Ulysses S. Grant, didn’t hesitate to capitalize on his leadership in the Civil War: “Vote as You Shot” was his 1868 slogan. Four years later, his reelection slogan was a more peaceful word play, “Grant Us Another Term.”

President William McKinley did even better in his 1900 reelection campaign with this gem: “Let Well Enough Alone.” Isn’t that the implicit message every White House incumbent sends if he serves in a time of prosperity? Voters prefer the devil they know unless conditions force them to change.

Slogans must be read literally. When Woodrow Wilson sought reelection in 1916, “He Kept Us Out of War” was appropriately stated in the past tense; by April 1917, after continued German submarine attacks on American ships, the United States plunged headlong into the Great War.

Wilson’s GOP successor, Warren Harding, invented a word with his pledge of a “Return to Normalcy.” Postwar, Americans knew what he meant and sent him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in a landslide. When Harding died in 1923 amid the sea of corruption that was his administration, new President Calvin Coolidge was able to use prosperity to fly above the roiling waters. “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge” was the perfect catchphrase for a low-key, stand-pat chief executive.

Good times continued just long enough for Herbert Hoover to make it three in a row for Republicans in 1928. “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” sounded good to the electorate. In a year, with the onset of the Great Depression, Americans began to discover that the chicken had no meat and the car had to be sold so they could eat.

Happy Days Are Here Again” may seem off-key at a time of massive unemployment and hunger, but what people most wanted from Franklin D. Roosevelt was hope for better times. Few were buying President Hoover’s 1932 slogan, “We are turning the corner”; most had realized that around Hoover’s corner was another corner.

Aside from FDR’s song, the cleverest refrain of the 1930s came from a man who might have been a formidable presidential candidate had he not been assassinated in 1935, Louisiana Sen. Huey Long. “Every Man a King” gave promise that “you can be a millionaire” with the mandate “share the wealth.” Now there’s a song for Sens. Warren or Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent-cum-socialist, to adopt!

One of the most remarkable developments in U.S. political history was the voters’ 1940 decision to ignore the two-term tradition for presidents. Yet in very uncertain times, and with memories of Hoover still fresh for millions, FDR was able to surmount a vigorous challenge from the GOP’s Wendell Willkie. Most of Willkie’s effort was centered on Roosevelt, with attack slogans such as “No Third Term,” the prescient “No Fourth Term Either” and “There’s No Indispensable Man.” While Roosevelt fell from the stratospheric marks he set in the popular vote in 1932 (57%) and 1936 (61%), he still won with nearly 55% in 1940.

Harry Truman had two well-known campaign aids in 1948. “Give ’em hell, Harry” was contributed by a fan who yelled it during a Truman whistle-stop train event. (The citizen-inventor is apparently unknown; he deserved at least an ambassadorship.) Then there was the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which actually was a Eubie Blake melody from the early 1920s. Truman’s opponent, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, gave voters nothing of note in the slogan department (although in his 1944 run for the White House, Dewey used “Dewey or Don’t We?”). It was left to Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, to define Dewey down as “the little man on the wedding cake.”

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower used a slogan and song, “I like Ike,” to magnify his pleasant smile and demeanor (he was much gruffer in private). Come 1956, the campaign decided not to mess with success, so the phrase became, “I still like Ike.” Television magnified the jingle’s impact, and old-timers still recall the cartoon elephants prancing around on the little screen as a chorus sang, “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike!” In response, poet Marya Mannes was moved to write “Sales Campaign,” which read in part, “Philip Morris, Lucky Strike, Alka-Seltzer, I like Ike.”

Surprisingly, the glamour candidate of the century, John F. Kennedy, had no memorable slogan (“A New Leader for the ’60s” and “A Time for Greatness” don’t cut it). But who else could have had Frank Sinatra croon a special campaign version of the hit “High Hopes”: “Everyone wants to back Jack, Jack is on the right track!”

Four years later, the two major-party nominees both selected slogans that are easily recalled, partly because they backfired. “All the Way With LBJ” became an ironic post-election commentary on President Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous war in Vietnam. Barry Goldwater’s “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” simply reinforced his unelectable positioning on the political far right.

Even more revealing was the contrast among the slogans in 1968. The inescapable issue was Vietnam, ergo Richard Nixon’s “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” The Nixon rally chant was “Nixon’s the One!” — another slogan that eventually backfired. During the Watergate scandal, as investigators tried to figure out who had orchestrated the cover-up, opponents would insist that Nixon, indeed, was the one.

At least Nixon had a slogan strategy. Hubert Humphrey, vice president under LBJ, was as confused on that front as he was about the Vietnam issue. HHH’s campaign floated from one bad idea to another: “Humphrey has the answers — now let’s give him the authority” and “There is no alternative.” Actually, there were two major alternatives, Nixon and the odious George Wallace, whose slogan, “Stand Up for America!” barely hid his real agenda: to roll back the clock on racial progress.

Nixon had it much easier in 1972, thanks mainly to the Democrats’ self-destruction with their nomination of too-liberal George McGovern. Quickly, McGovern was defined by the derogatory formulation “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” referring to the Democrat’s supposedly permissive attitude on drugs such as LSD, his policy on forgiving anti-Vietnam draft resisters and the social issue just becoming red-hot, abortion. Nixon skated to a massive reelection with the tag line “Now More Than Ever” and a catchy tune, “Nixon Now,” which made the famously uncool Nixon appear modish.

With Nixon’s 1974 departure, his unelected successor, Gerald Ford, had a giant mess to clean up. Ford’s 1976 slogan, “He’s Making Us Proud Again,” was an implicit comparison with Nixon. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter was offering a variation on the much-used “Time for a Change” theme: “A Leader, for a Change.” The sentiment was just enough to get Carter into the White House.

Everyone remembers the foundation of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — but, of course, those words didn’t take hold in the election until Reagan uttered them at his sole debate with President Carter a week before the election. This fundamental question has become a one-sentence summary of how Reagan won by 10 points. With peace and prosperity dominating the landscape four years later, Reagan got an even larger landslide with a magnificent feel-good ad declaring “It’s Morning Again in America.

Democrats finally resurged with Bill Clinton’s official slogan of “Putting People First” and the more powerful exclamation “It’s the economy, stupid!” Or maybe it was the snapback from President George H.W. Bush’s most famous utterance in 1988, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” a broken pledge that deeply divided the GOP. Four years on, President Clinton used the coming millennium to set his somewhat vague second-term goal, “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Clinton won, but the slogan seemed to produce more jokes than votes.

It says something about 2000 and 2004 that neither election (Bush-Gore nor Bush-Kerry) produced any slogans that resonated. But 2008 made up for it. Barack Obama’s team churned out “change” memes at a furious pace: “Change We Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need,” and “Yes We Can.” John McCain was left with “Country First,” a sentiment most people admire but not a big vote-getter at a time of unpopular wars and deep recession. McCain handed the baton to Mitt Romney in 2012, but Romney’s slogan, “Believe in America,” was no better. President Obama simply said “Forward,” which was enough for 51% of Americans that cast a ballot.

What could 2016’s candidates do to improve on the past, or mimic the most effective themes of previous White House contenders? We’ll soon find out. Pay attention to every word; the maximum will be said in the fewest possible letters.