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Photographs by AFP
Photographs by AFP

US elections: How slogans can make or break a candidate

The US presidential race has always been about selling the candidate. And at the heart of it is the campaign slogan

Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again" or Hillary Clinton’s “I’m with Her"? Which slogan sticks in your mind? Which one sells the candidate better?

Slogans are important because they can ignite a campaign, fire up volunteers on the road and, if they are particularly insightful, swing undecided voters. As an exhausted American electorate recovers from a bruising election season, let’s take a look at slogans associated with past campaigns.

Promises of instant gratification

Abraham Lincoln’s two campaign slogans were probably the most impactful. The 1860 slogan—“Vote Yourself a Farm"—helped catapult his campaign to success.This was followed by the folksy but insightful 1864 campaign slogan “Don’t Change Horses Midstream". So effective was the Lincoln re-election campaign slogan that Franklin D. Roosevelt used it again in 1944, 80 years later.

Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign slogan “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage" was also an incredibly relevant promise, as was William McKinley’s in 1900: “A Full Dinner Pail" to hungry workmen. These were all straightforward, utilitarian slogans that reflect both the nature of politics of the time and the straightforward terms of the social contract between the state and citizenry.

Promises of better times

Roosevelt’s 1932 slogan “Happy Days are Here Again" may resonate with Indians: this was used as a Thums Up cola campaign for many years. And it has a striking similarity with Narendra Modi’s “Acche Din Aane Waale Hain".

John F. Kennedy’s “A Time for Greatness" was a big, audacious promise. And one which, with the moon landing, he actually took a shot at.

Photo: AFP
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Photo: AFP

Calls for change

Typically, challengers have used anti-incumbency sentiment to call for change.

Ronald Reagan used “Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?" This was repeated in the famous televised debate one week before the election. It helped Reagan, who was trailing in the polls, overtake Jimmy Carter. This is the most explicit example of a slogan changing the course of an election. He also used “Let’s Make America Great Again", which Trump recycled in the 2016 election.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Carter, as challenger in 1976, used “A Leader for a Change" to play to widespread resentment against Richard Nixon following the president’s pardoning by Gerald Ford. Bill Clinton used “For People for a Change" in 1992 and Barack Obama used “Change We Can Believe In" in 2008, playing into not only anti-incumbency, but also anti-Washington-insider sentiments.

Photo: AFP
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Photo: AFP


Slogans have lost some of their humour. In response to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right", Lyndon Johnson reverted with the zinger “In Your Guts , You Know He’s Nuts". Another famously witty campaign slogan was Wendell Willkie’s “Roosevelt for Ex-President".

In 1884, James Blaine’s supporters used the slogan “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa" referring, with little tact, to the allegation that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child. Cleveland won the campaign and his supporters responded with the line “Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha".

Personality-based slogans

The prize for simplicity goes to Dwight Eisenhower, whose two slogans—“I Like Ike" and “I Still Like Ike"—played into the insight that his strength was his popularity, and his popularity was in being the leader of the Allied Forces during World War II. His humble humorous manner, and the fact that he came from small-town Abilene in Kansas, made him the personification of the American dream.

Hillary Clinton’s “I’m with Her" and Nixon’s “Nixon’s the One" in 1968 fall in the selling-the-candidate approach. Clinton’s also called out gender, to connect better with the female demographic.

Photo: AFP

Wartime slogans

Typically, promises of peace and security during wartime have been successful. Woodrow Wilson’s “He Kept Us Out of War" in 1916 and “A Safer World and a More Hopeful America" used by George W. Bush in 2004 are both promises or reminders of security.

Photo: AFP
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Photo: AFP


In summary, election slogans are a form of sophisticated salesmanship.

During times of war, they sell peace; in times of hunger, food; and in times of certainty, resolve. The challenger sells change, the incumbent sells the status quo. If they don’t know what to sell, the candidates sell themselves.

There is much more to winning an election than a smooth campaign slogan, but in a tight race, a relevant promise that swings undecided voters can be significant. The history of American election sloganeering is, in many ways, a perceptive history of American fears and fantasies. They tell you as much, if not more, about the people going to vote than the people running for office.

Shyam Balasubramanian has co-authored two books on sport including If Cricket is a Religion, Sachin is God first published by Harper Collins India in 2009 and The Business of Sport by Collins Business in 2011.

His Twitter handle is @shyam__bala

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