Do Campaign Slogans Matter?

Michael Kurth Monday, September 10, 2018 Comments Off on Do Campaign Slogans Matter?
Do Campaign Slogans Matter?


Pundits have cited many factors for Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential election: the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; Trump’s use of Twitter and social media in general; low voter turnout by Democrats due to lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton; near universal media coverage of Trump’s political rallies; meddling in the election by Russia and others; third-party candidates drawing votes from a frustrated and turned-off electorate. You name it and somebody has probably already suggested it.  But little has been written about the influence of the respective campaign slogans: “Make America Great Again” versus “I’m with Her.”

There have been many memorable campaign slogans. Sometimes they are simply touting a candidate. Perhaps the most memorable of these is “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” used successfully by William Harrison in the election of 1840. (Tippecanoe was the nickname for Harrison, who had defeated Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh in a rather unmemorable battle near the Tippecanoe river in 1811. Tyler was his vice-presidential candidate). Other memorable name slogans were “I like Ike” used successfully twice by Dwight Eisenhower, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” used by Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson’s “All the Way with LBJ” in 1964. Hillary Clinton’s “I’m with Her” falls into this category; although it doesn’t mention Clinton by name it clearly focused on her as the reason to vote.

Some slogans focus on a specific policy or issue.  For example “54-40 or Fight” was used by James Polk when he upset Henry Clay in the 1844 election. The slogan referred to the Oregon Territory, which the U.S. and Britain jointly occupied all the way to Russian Alaska at the latitude of 54 degrees and 40 minutes. Polk wanted the U.S. to have sole control of the entire territory and threatened to go to war with Britain over it. But after he was elected he compromised with the British on the 49th parallel, which is the present northern board of Oregon.  Other issue slogans were “Tariff Reform” used by Grover Cleveland in 1892 and Woodrow Wilson’s “The Man of the Eight-Hour Day” in 1912.  

But virtually every campaign slogan used in the last 50 years has conveyed a vague “feel good” vision of the future that would take place if the candidate were elected. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (first used by Ronald Regan in 1980) is an example of this, as is Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change,” Mitt Romney’s “Restore our Future,” Bill Clinton’s “It’s Time To Change America,” Regan’s “It’s Morning in America,” and George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light.”

How well do campaign slogans match up with the performance of the candidates who use them? Below is a list of 10 slogans from past elections and the 10 presidents who used them. How many you can correctly match up based on presidential performance? The answers are below. When you see the answers you might understand why candidates now prefer vague feel-good slogans rather than explicit promises.   

Here are the correct answers:

1. “He kept us out of war” was used by Woodrow Wilson in 1916; five months, later Wilson brought America into war with Germany after the Germans launched unrestricted submarine warfare.

2. “Vote yourself a farm and horses” was used by Abraham Lincoln in his 1860 campaign. It referred to the Republican party’s promise to support a law granting free homesteads to settlers of western land.

3. “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” was used by Herbert Hoover in his 1928 campaign. Two years later the stock market crashed and the nation plunged into the Great Depression.

4. “Happy days are here again” was the slogan and theme song for Franklin Roosevelt in his 1932 campaign. The Depression continued for eight more years and ended only with the outbreak of World War II.

5. “Don’t swap horses in mid-stream” was used by three presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.

6. “A winning Team” was used by Richard Nixon in his 1968 campaign.  Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, won the election. But both were forced to resign from office before their terms were completed.

7. “Read my lips, no new taxes” was used by George H.W. Bush in his 1988 campaign. But it was a pledge he found impossible to keep as the national debt kept piling up.

8. “Putting people first” was a slogan used in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. But he ignored the rise of radical Islam, the genocide in Rwanda, and failed to pass healthcare reform (AKA “Hillarycare”).

9. “A leader, for a change” was Jimmy Carter’s slogan in 1978. But a year later he was widely criticized for his lack of leadership during the Iranian hostage crisis.

10. “Let well enough alone” was the uninspiring slogan of William McKinley in 1900. Tragically, McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by a radical anarchist.

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