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What makes a good campaign slogan?

Slogan-wise, this year’s presidential campaign gives us Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together,” “Fighting for us,” and “I’m with Her.” Trump’s slogan is a call to bring something back from the past. Clinton’s are statements of solidarity. Phonetically, “Make America Great Again” has a characteristic sound shape, with its repeated m’s, k’s and g’s. “Stronger together” and “Fighting for us” likewise repeats sounds for phonetic unity. Both Trump and Clinton assert values—greatness in one case, and strength and fight in the other. By the wayside now are “Feel The Bern,” “TrustTed,” “Telling it like it is,” and more.

Campaign slogans, whether official or unofficial, have some recurring linguistic themes and devices. References to greatness, strength, peace, prosperity, progress, pride, and personality often play a role. The unofficial slogans that appear on signs, stickers and buttons often to poke at the other side. And poetic wordplay is often central, with repetition, rhyme, and parallelism all having roles.

“I’m with Her” evokes memory of the three-word campaign slogan “I like Ike,” from Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign. In a famous lecture on the poetic function of language, the linguist Roman Jakobson once analyzed “I like Ike.” The repetition of vowel sounds (the techniques known as assonance) made the slogan memorable, Jakobson said. The long i vowel (phonetically the diphthong /ay/) is repeated and framed by the consonants in a way which suggests, as Jakobson put it “the loving subject enveloped by the beloved object.” The “I” and the “Ike” are both present in the “like” adding to the intensity of the slogan.

Rhyme and the repetition of beginning consonants (alliteration) can be found in slogans as long ago as the election of 1840, with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” That slogan actually came from a campaign song which referred to William Henry Harrison’s famous victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Harrison caught pneumonia and died just a month after taking office and “Tyler Too” became the first vice-president to succeed to the presidency on the death of the incumbent.

"Make America Great Again hat" by Gage Skidmore. CC bhy SA 2.0 via Flickr.
“Make America Great Again hat” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

We find alliteration in the 1844 “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” which referred to James K. Polk’s call to expand U.S. control to the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory at 54 degrees, 40 minutes. And as we march through history, we find “Rejuvenated Republicanism,” “Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity,” “Putting People First,” “Prosperity and Progress,” and “Reformer with Results” (you can check out the years and candidates at the end of the post).

Some slogans have more complex parallelism like “We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52,” or “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont” from John C. Fremont’s 1856 campaign. Then there is Herbert Hoover’s 1928 “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage.” Hoover also used the less remembered “Who but Hoover?”, with its rhyme play on “Who” and “Hoo” and “Who but” and “Herbert,” following in the spirit of the 1924 slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge.”

Slogans can focus on a candidate’s presumed virtues: in 1996 Bob Dole tried “The Better Man for a Better America,” in 2004 John Forbes Kerry had “We Need Another JFK,” and in 2008 John McCain offered “Best Prepared to Lead on Day One.” Political attacks can be reinforced with alliteration or rhyme as in the 1884 campaign. That year saw a tit-for-tat between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland. Blaine’s attack “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa” referred to Cleveland’s supposedly having an illegitimate child. Cleveland’s side responded with the haiku “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine.” In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign addressed fears of his opponent Barry Goldwater with “The Stakes are too High for You to Stay at Home.” Johnson supporters also responded to Goldwater’s slogan “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,” with the rhyme “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.”

Some elections are about fears, and some are about the future. Post-war destiny was apparent in the 1960 slogans, where John F. Kennedy used “A Time for Greatness” and Richard Nixon tried “For the Future.” In other elections, voters are called upon to make something happen. In 2008, Barack Obama’s slogans were “Change” and “Change You Can Believe In.” In 2012, the fact of incumbency made “Change” no longer quite the right message to voters, so the slogan was “Forward,” since “Change.” Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s slogans in 1980 were “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” and “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Reagan’s re-election slogan took credit with “It’s Morning Again in America.”

Sometimes, though, incumbents find it hard to give up a good slogan. Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 campaign used “I still like Ike.” It wasn’t as good phonetically, but it still beat Adlai Stevenson’s “We Need Adlai Badly.”

So as you watch the campaigns play out, enjoy the wordplay while it lasts. As Mario Cuomo once explained: “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”

Key to the alliterative slogans: “Rejuvenated Republicanism” is from Benjamin Harrison’s (William Henry’s grandson) 1888 campaign, “Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity” is from William McKinley in 1986,” “Putting People First,” is from Bill Clinton in 1992, “Prosperity and Progress,” and “Reformer with Results” are from Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000).

Featured image credit: “Hillary Clinton” by Nathania Johnson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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