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Presidential Campaign Themes: ‘It's The Slogan, Stupid’

Campaign slogans may seem simple-minded, but they can reveal a campaign strategy. Barack Obama’s new slogan is “Forward.” Mitt Romney’s slogan is “Believe in America.”

Let’s examine the reasoning that probably led to those slogans.

Galvanizing Theme

A persuasive slogan expresses the core argument of a campaign.

Obama strategists didn’t want a slogan that put the focus on his record because his major domestic achievements are not too popular (“stimulus” and ObamaCare). With so many voters suffering from recession, the Obama team didn’t want to argue that people are better off now than four years ago. So their slogan suggests a different question: Will you be better off four years from now with Obama’s policies or Romney’s? This frames a choice of two candidates rather than a referendum on the president’s record.

Romney strategists realize that their candidate is not very popular. But they also know most voters feel that the U.S. is on the “wrong track,” so they wanted to shift the focus from their candidate to the country. “Believe in America” suggests that optimistic, pro-growth policies will rejuvenate the nation. So the Romney campaign wants to pose this question: Do you put your faith in American ingenuity, traditional values and free enterprise, or do you trust the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?

Evocative Words

A slogan should sound new and stirring. But it isn’t easy coming up with catchphrases that weren’t already used in past ad campaigns.

When the Obama team unveiled “Forward” as its new slogan, some observed that it was similar to a slogan made infamous by Chairman Mao, dictator of communist China. His plan to transform the nation through rapid industrialization, “the Great Leap Forward,” resulted in brutal persecution, famine and a death toll of 18-45 million people. For many older and more conservative Americans, “Forward” doesn’t sound new or inspirational.

Perhaps an Obama aide proposed this as an alternative: “We are turning the corner.” But that was President Herbert Hoover’s slogan in 1932, during the Great Depression.

Romney might have been tempted to use this slogan: “Let’s make America great again.” But that was already used by Ronald Reagan in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter.

Mockery-Proof

Strategists also consider how their slogan might be lampooned.

Ridicule is a part of politics. In 1884, supporters of James Blaine popularized the slogan, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” to mock Grover Cleveland for having had a child out of wedlock. In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s motto, “In your heart, you know he’s right” was parodied by critics: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

Obama strategists didn’t want a slogan that sounded grandiloquent. His 2008 slogan, “Change you can believe in,” raised expectations that were not fulfilled for most people. For example, the Washington Post just revealed that lobbyists are regular visitors to the White House, despite Obama’s promise to change the political culture.

Romney strategists, worried that their candidate doesn’t inspire much trust or affection, would not have dreamed of adopting a slogan that was candidate-centered, like Harry Truman’s, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” or Dwight Eisenhower’s, “I like Ike.” They might have tested “Leave It to Mitt” or “Mitt Knows Best” to humor the candidate, since he loves old sitcoms, but it’s probably safe to assume neither scored well with the under-60 demo.

Basic Believability

To be effective, a slogan must seem credible – or at least plausible.

What would comics and critics have said if Obama used Eisenhower’s reelection slogan, “Peace and Prosperity”?

What would have been the public reaction if Romney, known to flip-flop on occasion, uttered George H. W. Bush’s slogan from 1988, “Read my lips”?

Genial Generality

Slogans also need to be somewhat elastic, allowing a campaign to fit a lot of messages under the broad theme.

Here’s a bumper sticker slogan: “Give me ambiguity or give me something else.” Artful ambiguity is common in political rhetoric. In presidential campaigns, in particular, it’s not helpful to have a narrow theme when your candidate must daily address questions about foreign affairs, fiscal policy, law enforcement, culture wars, character, etc.

Obama’s slogan must be one of the most succinct and vague in presidential history. “Forward.” Oh, he won’t go backward. If he sees quicksand ahead, he will walk across it.

Romney’s slogan is equally broad. “Believe in America.” If you don’t believe in America, if you believe in Ubekibekistanstan, why are you voting here? You should self-deport!

Safely Serious

In a time of deep recession and high anxiety, campaigns aren’t about to take the risk of investing in a wry slogan.

It seems like there are fewer humorous bumper stickers now. (“Very funny, Scotty. Now beam down my clothes.”) Political bumper stickers are especially serious. You won’t see a slogan like that of Franklin Pierce in 1852, hoping to succeed fellow Democrat James K. Polk – “We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52.” Or FDR’s slogan in 1932, “Hoover we trusted, now we’re busted.”

Still, while the 2012 slogans seem lame, at least they are not offensive like Ross Perot’s slogan in 1992, “Ross for Boss.” How dare he try to steal Bruce Springsteen’s nickname! No wonder he lost.

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