A History of Terrible Campaign Slogans From We Polked You in '44 to Build Back Better

Former Vice President Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a "Build Back Better" clean energy event on July 14 in Wilmington, Delaware. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty

This year has been a terrible one for a lot of things, including presidential campaign slogans.

Jay Townsend, a Republican political consultant who has worked on four presidential campaigns, says, "At the end of 2016, nobody could forget Donald Trump's slogan. It worked with a lot of people. If you walked out on the street today and asked 'What's Trump's slogan?' and 'What's Biden's slogan?' nobody would know."

This year Trump went with the defensive "Keep America Great" and the Biden campaign, after first trying out "Unite for A Better Future" and "Battle for the Soul of a Nation," settled, somehow, on "Build Back Better."

If "Build Back Better" is not the worst presidential campaign slogan in American history –that honor may belong to the Democrat's 1852 "We Polked you in '44. We shall Pierce you in '52"– it is a part of a long line of forgettable, embarrassing or unfortunate slogans dating back to the birth of the Republic.

Two-termer George Washington never had an official campaign slogan—or an official campaign, for that matter—but as early as 1789, craftsmen were making pins with his initials and the anodyne "Long live the president" on it, the very first piece presidential campaign swag.

By 1840 the art and science of crafting slogans had advanced as far as William Henry Harrison's campaign song, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." The line was so alliteratively memorable that it helped Harrison win and has been a well-known bit of political lore ever since, although hardly anyone nowadays knows what it refers to (Harrison had led American troops in a successful battle against an alliance of Native American tribes near the Tippecanoe River in Indiana; John Tyler was his running mate).

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, political history curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, says not only did it have the snappiest slogan, Harrison's campaign was also the first to really appreciate the possibilities of campaign swag. Supporters could buy any number of objects decorated with "cider and log cabin" motifs. There were china plates, badges, ribbons, decorative hatchets, and flasks with Harrison's image on them. Graddy says "I suppose we have Harrison or Harrison's campaign managers to thank for all of our junk drawers now with trinkets from campaigns we pick up."

42 William Henry Harisson
William Henry Harrison, ninth president and father of modern campaign swag. Public Domain

Some of that disposable stuff lasts long enough to become valuable. One of the rarest and most expensive campaign buttons is one featuring 1920 Democratic presidential candidate James Cox and his running mate Franklin D. Roosevelt with their slogan "Americanize America." In recent decades these pins have sold for $25,000-$45,000. A banner from James K. Polk's 1840 campaign has been listed by Heritage Auctions with a minimum bid of $250,000.

In 1856, Republican John C. Frémont's slogan went beyond being merely catchy to actually include some policy: "Free soil, free men and Frémont." Jon Grinspan, another curator of political history at the Smithsonian, says throughout his campaign, Frémont just kept adding things that ought to be free, including at one point free labor, free speech and free homes." It's a slogan that has meaning and substance, and it's also a little clever and playful at the same time," Grinspan says. "I like how flexible it is."

Subsequent candidates had a hard time topping it, In 1888, the best Benjamin Harrison could do was "Grandfather's hat fits Ben." Grinspan says "Benjamin Harrison's whole sloganing is 'I had a grandfather.' I'm not going to vote for you for president because your granddad was president." Harrison won nevertheless.

There have been plenty of duds as bad or worse since. Running against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 Republican Alf Landon's campaign urged "Let's Make it a Landon-Slide." When Thomas Dewey ran against FDR in 1944 one of his slogans was the mystifying "Well Dewey or Don't We." In 1964 Barry Goldwater's campaign proclaimed, "In your heart you know he's right," Democratic smart alecks were quick to come back with "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

Barry Goldwater
U.S. senator and Republican presidential nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, speaks at an election rally in Madison Square Garden, New York City, on October 28, 1964. William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

The twentieth century, though, also had perhaps the best and most memorable campaign slogan ever, 1951's "I Like Ike." That year's race was the first to make significant use of television and the line was emblazoned on screens across the country when Roy Disney produced the first televised campaign ad.

The last century also featured the use by at least two other winning candidates of the slogan that Trump would adopt so successfully in 2016. In 1980 Ronald Reagan made "Let's Make America Great Again" his slogan and in 1992 Bill Clinton used the phrase in speeches. But while the line was good enough to reuse, it may now be dead. Trump, being Trump, trademarked "Make America Great Again" so any future candidate who wants to use it will have to pay him for the privilege.

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President Ronald Reagan, campaigning for a second term of office, gives the "V for Victory" sign during a rally speech at the California State Capitol the day before the 1984 presidential election. Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images

Maybe it's just as well. The Smithsonian's Grinspan thinks the age of the official campaign slogan may be behind us. He said, "In the last generation or so, there's so much on social media—there's so much campaigning that's not being written in headquarters. There's a world of memes and tweets and everything. So maybe the idea of a single, central campaign slogan just matters less when there are so many people campaigning who aren't paid by the party to run a campaign."

Campaign consultant Townsend says, "You want a slogan that very clearly states your unique selling proposition", something that "Build Back Better" definitely doesn't. The most unique and compelling thing about Biden's candidacy is not a vague exhortation about building something but the stark fact that "He's Not Trump." (Though Townsend suggests the Democrats might also have done well with "We've had enough of the clowns and crooks").

No self-respecting political consultant with dreams of a long, lucrative career, of course, would have dared recommend something that cut so brutally to the heart of the matter. Maybe for that reason, as Grinspan observed, the best slogans are now coming from amateurs. The best one of the 2020 campaign, a popular meme and hashtag which has spawned its own merchandise-selling website, came not from a consultant or advertising agency but from the college kids and other online jokers who came up with "Settle for Biden."