Slogans have been a part of presidential campaigns since George Washington was fitted for his first set of wooden teeth. Washington himself didn’t need a slogan. He was, after all, the “Father of Our Country.” How could he lose? Then there was the I-cannot-tell-a-lie story that we now know was itself a lie dreamed up by a biographer.
As we’re seeing in the preliminary rounds of the 2024 Presidential Election, advanced age has become a detriment with both Biden and Trump accused of showing signs of senility due to misstatements and assorted stumblin’, fumblin’ and bumblin’. Yet Abraham Lincoln was hyped as “Honest Old Abe” by his admiring supporters. Then again, Old Abe, elected and re-elected President at ages 52 and 56, was just a kid in comparison to his contemporary counterparts. Thirty-three of our 46 presidents were in their forties and fifties when elected. Five of the last eight were in their sixties and seventies. As for honesty and truthfulness ala Lincoln and Washington, it’s been a long time since either attribute has been cited as a qualification for presidential or congressional office.
We all know that campaign ads are not subject to truth in advertising as commercial products are, so we are accustomed to doubting any paid candidate claims. That’s why we need to get back to the honored tradition of campaign slogans if only for entertainment value.
Sometimes slogans are credited with creating the traction to power a candidate to victory. Simple rhyming schemes work, and Dwight D. Eisenhower proved it with “I Like Ike” in 1952. Since that worked so well, he got re-elected in 1956 with, “I Still Like Ike,” which tells me they didn’t spend a lot of time brainstorming slogans the second time around. It’s always handy to have a friendly nickname like Ike or Abe, but nothing beats being a hero and the commanding general of the winning side in a world war. I’m thinking that being a Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force was more than enough to get Ike over the hump. Closer examination of the 1952 Presidential Election shows Ike beating Democrat Adlai Stevenson by about 6.5 million votes.
That wasn’t necessarily a landslide. Biden beat Trump by more than that in 2020. Stevenson might have even been closer, but you may see why not when you consider his campaign slogans like “Madly for Adlai” in 1952 and, teaming with Estes Kefauver in 1956 for this groaner: “Adlai and Estes— the Bestest.” Looking ahead to next November on a similar note, Biden could exploit Trump’s unfamiliarity with the English language with something like: “Donald Bends the Factses and Don’t Pay No Taxes.”
Ike may have been a short easy-to-remember name, but Al Smith was one letter shorter, and he came with a winning slogan for it: “All for ‘Al’ and ‘Al’ for All.” The slogan was a winner, but he wasn’t. He lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928, but it was Hoover who had the misfortune of presiding over the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no trouble in 1932 defeating the beleaguered Hoover, who had once vowed “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” and, on his way to three more terms, ran roughshod over his Republican opponents. Wendell Willkie may have lost to FDR in 1940, but he gets my vote for one of the cleverest campaign slogans: “Roosevelt for Ex-President.”
It was a ditty “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” that worked for William Henry Harrison, the “hero of Tippecanoe”— a.k.a. the Battle of Tippecanoe against Native American combatants who had been ordered off land they had inhabited for centuries. John Tyler was his running mate in 1840. They were running against the incumbent, Martin Van Buren, who was being portrayed as a wimp. War heroes always win against wimps.
Abraham Lincoln, seeking re-election in the middle of the carnage of the Civil War, prevailed with: “Don’t Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream.” FDR borrowed the same slogan in one of his last three presidential campaigns. If Trump and Biden are their parties’ choices in 2024, as it appears they might be, I’d suggest taking advantage of a horse metaphor: “Show you’re superior; don’t vote for a horse’s posterior.”
Donald Trump, never known for originality, trumpeted “Make America Great Again!” as his slogan, apparently stealing the thunder of Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” in 1980. The Trump campaign added an exclamation point and the inclusive “let’s” was dropped. John Kerry in 2004 went with “Let America Be America Again” which raised the question “and which America was that?”
Incumbent William McKinley’s slogan was “Let well enough alone” when he ran for re-election in 1900. He won and was assassinated the next year. Enough said.
Grover Cleveland’s past caught up with him when a story broke claiming that 10 years before his presidential bid in 1884 he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Furthermore, the unwed mother was allegedly in an insane asylum, as such institutions were known in those days, and the child had been quietly adopted and slipped into obscurity. “Ma, Ma, where’s your Pa?” was a slogan of Cleveland’s Republican rival, James G. Blaine, in that campaign. Cleveland won regardless of the scandal and his triumphant supporters got to answer the slogan: “Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha!”
Campaign Slogans for Convicted Felons?
Scandals didn’t really stick to either of the major party 2016 presidential hopefuls. The bottom line is that these were two of the most unpopular candidates for President in recent history, so scandals just don’t seem to mean anything in this bizarre scenario. Now, with Donald Trump facing dozens of criminal charges in multiple trials and in the midst of a civil trial exposing him as inflating his value almost as much as his ego, he is so far in front of other GOP hopefuls he could win the presidency as a convicted felon and then pardon himself. In presidential politics, crime might very well pay.
Slogan? How about: “Stand Up for Prison Reform! Get Trump Out of Jail!”
Obama kept it short when he ran in 2008 with the monosyllabic “Change!” and “Hope!” He stuck with the brevity, if not a single syllable, in his successful bid for re-election with “Forward!” In the 2016 presidential election, Jeb Bush went monosyllabic with “Jeb!” but was soon out of the running in that year’s primary. It seems that just repeating your first name with an exclamation point isn’t that effective in garnering votes. Jeb also came across as lethargic and boring with another slogan: “Slow and Steady Wins the Race.” An exclamation point might have improved that one.
Some other campaign slogans of note:
- Ted Cruz has since proven he is no George Washington despite his slogan when losing his 2016 primary bid to Trump— “A Time for Truth.” As an election denier now subservient to Trump, who once called him “Lyin’ Ted,” it appears that Cruz’s time for truth has long passed.
- “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” was Republican Barry Goldwater’s slogan in 1964. Although not an official LBJ campaign slogan, his supporters countered with a crude witticism: “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.”
- “Love Trumps Hate” was a Hillary Clinton Slogan in 2016, but she apparently got her nouns in reverse order and, despite an advantage of three million in the popular vote, the hateful rhetoric prevailed and Trump won the electoral vote.
- Making your name memorable in a slogan may carry over to the voting booth, as Thomas E. Dewey must have strategized in 1944 in his campaign against FDR with the following: “Dewey or Don’t We” sans question mark. The voters didn’t, but Dewey did run again in the 1948 election against “Give ‘em Hell Harry” Truman with the more declarative “Dew It with Dewey.” This time Dewey lost to Truman in one of the closest presidential elections ever.
- I’m not sure what campaigners for Bernie Sanders were trying to tell us in his run for the Democratic nomination in 2020, but he was the subject of the oddest slogan in what may be one of the oddest and most populated field of Democrats ever to campaign for President with the following: “Feel the Bern.”
- Last but definitely least were the anti-Nixon sloganeers in the 1972 campaign who reddened a few faces with “Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You.” Nixon supporters retaliated with a more graphic and boastful double-entendre: “They Can’t Lick Our Dick.”