During the 2012 Democratic and Republican national conventions, funnyman Conan O’Brien and his team scoured presidential campaign footage to develop some hilarious alternative campaign slogans to President Barack Obama’s “Forward” and Mitt Romney’s “Believe in America.” A few gems included: “It’s Every American for Themselves,” “America: Just Another Place With a Flag on the Map” and the blunt, “I Made a Lot of Money.” O’Brien specializes in satire, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, as throughout U.S. history a number of presidents and presidential wannabes have employed some slogans so ridiculously bad, we remember a few of them more than 150 years later.
10. “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” (1964)
Aside from the obvious image problem of being perceived as an extreme conservative, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater also employed outdated, talking-head style ads, which he used to defend himself against allegations of war-mongering and eliminating social safety nets. Even the aforementioned “safe” slogan backfired on Goldwater, when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s supporters shot back with: “In Your Head You Know He’s Wrong” and “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.” Johnson would go on to crush the Arizona senator in the election. Goldwater would become quiet on the national front in his later years, distancing himself from GOP factions as the growing influence of the Christian Right on the party in the 1980s conflicted with his staunch libertarian views.
9. “We Polked You in ’44, We Shall Pierce You in ’52” (1852)
Marketing guru Steve Cone, who wrote a book exploring the subject of what makes a good campaign slogan, notes that puns rarely fit the bill — especially puns that invoke images that sound, well, kind of dirty. In the case of Franklin Pierce, who invoked the name of fellow Democrat, James Polk, and his presidential victory in 1844, this bizarre slogan worked well enough for him to trounce Whig candidate Gen. Winfield Scott in the 1852 election. Pierce didn’t have much of a chance to live up to his big victory; within weeks of his win, his last surviving child was decapitated in a train accident and Pierce and his wife reportedly never recovered from their depression over the horrible loss.
8. “Get Clean for Gene” (1968)
This slogan came about by accident, as Eugene McCarthy, a one-time wannabe Benedictine monk, hardly embraced the left-wing ideology held by so many of his young followers who “got clean” by cutting their long hair and shaving their beards for him. McCarthy’s anti-war stance mobilized many radical college students and protestors to work for the devout politician from Minnesota, going door-to-door as clean-shaven disciples. While McCarthy, the first candidate to challenge then-incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination, made such a splash that his showing forced Johnson out of the race, Hubert Humphrey eventually secured the nomination before losing to Richard Nixon in the election.
7. “Pour It on ’Em, Harry” (1948)
While this election cycle spawned one of the most famous photos in political history, that of victorious President Harry S. Truman jubilantly holding up a Chicago Daily Tribune headline, which read: “Dewey Defeats Truman,” it also spawned the far-lesser-known slogan, “Pour It On ’Em Harry” While we can assume the slogan was supposed to be a rallying cry for the incumbent underdog pitted against popular New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, it’s not nearly as effective as the less “official” but much more straightforward: “Give ’Em Hell, Harry.” Whatever the case may be, Truman won the election in an upset over Dewey.
6. “Cox and Cocktails” (1920)
Here’s a prediction you can take to the bank — there will never be another time in history when “cocktails” are mentioned in a presidential campaign slogan. Naturally, the cocktails reference was to the Prohibition movement, with Cox referring to Democratic nominee James Cox. Republican nominee Warren Harding supported Prohibition, and his campaign launched the negative “Cox and Cocktails” slogan to appeal to Prohibition forces. Harding scored a landslide victory over Cox. The irony of it all is that Harding was very much all the things he railed against during his campaign; pick a vice — gambling, tobacco, women, and, of course, booze — and Harding reportedly had it. In fact, it’s said that Harding’s alcohol-swilling played a part in his unexpected death while in office, ushering in the presidency of Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Interestingly, it wouldn’t be the last we heard of Cox’s team, as his running mate was a Navy man by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
5. “Let’s Make it a Landon-Slide,” etc. (1936)
It could be said Alfred Landon never stood a chance against the hugely popular Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That didn’t stop the Kansas governor from employing several campaign slogans that deserve an A” for effort but an “F” for execution. In another nod to puns never making good campaign slogans, Landon used a series of such ineffectual literary devices in 1936, from “Life, Liberty and Landon,” and “Let’s Make it a Landon-Slide” to the puzzling, “Let’s get another deck.” Another Landon slogan, “Defeat the New Deal and its Reckless Spending,” certainly was better and more straightforward, but it got lost in all the truly bad slogans. In the end, there was no “Landon-slide,” only a landslide on the part of FDR, who earned a whopping 98 percent of the electoral vote.
4. “Who Is James K. Polk?” (1844)
Veteran politician and silver-tongued orator Henry Clay made his intent clear this slogan, hinting that James K. Polk lacked political experience. The Whig Party nominee, Clay failed to see that the negative slogan said nothing about his own qualifications and instead elevated Polk’s name. The slogan may have also backfired by actually leading people to find out more about this James K. Polk character. Polk, too, countered with a successful “54-40 or Fight” campaign slogan, alluding to the location of the then-contested (with the British) northern border with Canada. Whether because he had a better slogan or not, Polk became the 11th president.
3. “Let Well Enough Alone” (1900)
While some politicians have gone slaphappy with their puns, incumbent President William McKinley and his ilk get an “F” for effort with this half-hearted attempt at a slogan. Perhaps this not-very-persuasive statement harkens back to the time period; Republicans had generally been successful in state and local elections the prior year, and McKinley had the Spanish-American War victory to his credit. So, the reasoning may have been, “Why even try? We’re a sure thing.” And, sure enough, McKinley handedly defeated Democratic presidential contender William Jennings Bryan, even winning Bryan’s home state of Nebraska. McKinley’s second term, however, ended in tragedy, as an anarchist assassinated him in 1901.
2. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” (1840)
Incumbent president Martin Van Buren had more than an economic depression to fight going up against the Whig Party’s William Henry Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler. Their slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” often tops the list of worst presidential campaign slogans. But back in the day when the “Hero of Tippecanoe” (paying homage to Harrison’s victory over Native American warriors some three decades earlier in present-day Indiana) and Tyler dreamed up the slogan, it was immensely popular and even spawned a song, which goes, in part: “For Tippecanoe and Tyler too. And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van, is a used up man.” They did, indeed, beat Van Buren, though Harrison would become known for having the shortest presidency in history, serving just 30 days before succumbing to pneumonia and making way for his VP, Tyler.
1. “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (1884)
If you think today’s politicians get down in the dirt, they don’t hold a candle to the nasty tactics employed by New York Gov. Grover Cleveland and Republican challenger, Sen. James Blaine in 1884. While the slogan sounds just bizarre (and certainly not very presidential), there is a sleazy story behind it all; apparently, Blaine and his camp seized upon the news that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, prompting the negative slogan. Cleveland’s people weren’t above rolling around in the mud and countered with this ditty: “Blaine, Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine!” They also twisted Blaine’s negative “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” with this gem: “Gone to the White House — ha, ha, ha!” And, indeed, Cleveland did end up winning the presidency, although no one from either side of the party aisle won from an ethics standpoint.
Here’s a great link to a site, Museum of the Moving Image, which has archived many campaign commercials of presidential elections from 1952 through 2008.