Who's Winning The Obama Vs. Romney Slogan Wars?

I often ask our clients to identify a few political slogans at the beginning of our media training workshops.

I start by asking whether anyone remembers Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan. Someone inevitably shouts out, “Morning in America!” Then, I ask whether anyone can remember his opponent’s slogan. Almost no one can. Few even remember that Walter Mondale was his opponent.

To maintain political balance, I follow up by asking about Barack Obama’s 2008 slogan. People instantly shout out “Yes We Can,” or “Hope,” or “Change.” When I ask about John McCain’s slogan, I’m greeted by empty stares (it was “Country First”). 

Here are a few others: George H.W. Bush won with promises for “A Kinder, Gentler Nation.” Bill Clinton won his first term with the (unofficial) slogan “It’s The Economy, Stupid,” and his second with a promise to build a “Bridge to the 21st Century.” George W. Bush won in 2000 as a “Compassionate Conservative” and a “Reformer With Results.”

Quick: What was Michael Dukakis’ slogan? How about Bob Dole’s? John Kerry’s?

That pop quiz is more than an academic exercise. Presidential campaigns with the more memorable and optimistic slogans are the likeliest to win.

How much more likely? Since CNN ushered in the 24/7 media age in 1980, there have been eight presidential elections. The candidate with the more memorable and optimistic slogan won at least almost every time, and arguably every time. They didn’t win solely because of their slogans, of course, but it’s telling that candidates who never seem to settle on one are also the ones whose campaigns tend to flounder.

Given the importance of consistent and optimistic slogans, who has the advantage going into   November’s election?

So far, President Obama has been unable to settle on a campaign slogan. According to the Associated Press, he’s tried “Winning the Future,” “We Can’t Wait,” “A Fair Shot,” “An America Built to Last,” and “An Economy Built to Last.” He’s been using the slogan “Forward” over the past couple of months, which, depending on your perspective, sounds either motivational or like a military command.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been much more consistent. His slogan has remained “Believe in America” for more than a year, although he’s also been flirting with “Putting Jobs First” lately. He has also occasionally used a sign that reads, “Repeal and Replace Obamacare,” which he displayed prominently after last week’s Supreme Court health care decision.

Mr. Obama’s “Forward” isn’t particularly memorable or optimistic. Mr. Romney’s “Believe in America” is optimistic, but not memorable (despite using it for more than a year, few people in our workshops ever remember hearing it).

It’s far too early to declare a winner in the slogan wars. But here’s how you can tell who’s winning. Keep a close eye on the cardboard placards that adorn the candidates’ lecterns over the next few months. Modern presidential history suggests that the candidate who changes it the most is going to lose.

Note: This piece was originally published in Politico. Mitt Romney photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

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