So many candidates! Twenty-five at last count, although by the time I click “publish,” six or seven of them may have thrown in the towel. (Rep. Eric Swalwell, who took part in the first round of televised debates, in June, dropped out earlier this week. His slogan was “Go Big. Be Bold. Do Good,” but three short verbs didn’t sufficiently activate his supporters.)
More than two dozen candidates, but few signs of originality in their messaging. Nine candidates—Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Wayne Messam, Joe Sestak, and Tom Steyer—use only their first names in their logos, a trend that goes back as far as 1948’s “Give ’Em Hell, Harry” and 1952’s “I Like Ike,” but which got a big boost in 2016, with “Jeb!,” “Hillary” and “Bernie” as first-name-basis contenders.
Beyond that major theme, I see a bunch of other trends. Here are my evaluations and letter grades for the 2020 Democratic slogans; you can see all of them, organized alphabetically by candidate name, with their respective logos, on Ballotpedia, the nonprofit “digital encyclopedia of American politics and elections.”
USA! USA! USA!
“America” is the most popular element in this cycle’s slogans, with three candidates simply (and unimaginatively) linking their names to the name of the country they’re hoping to lead. Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, has the oddest twist on the formula, and also the weirdest logo.
Pete Buttigieg: A Fresh Start for America. With “fresh,” the mayor of South Bend, Indiana (population 102,245), slips in a sideways reference to his relative youth. (At 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the race.) “Start” always evokes optimism, but it can also suggest inconclusiveness. Grade: B.
Amy Klobuchar: Amy for America. Klobuchar was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota; she’s currently serving her third term. She’s one of nine candidates who want us to know her on a first-name basis — unlike Donald Trump, who is never “Donald” in advertising. Missed opportunity: “Amy” and “America” share a first syllable, but her logo doesn’t make the connection. Grade: C.
Wayne Messam: Wayne for America. Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida (a suburb of Miami, population 140,328), wasn’t included in the first round of televised debates, in June. He lacks either first- or last-name recognition, but going with “Wayne” may connect him in some voters’ minds with John Wayne. But honestly, that’s just a guess. Grade: C.
Seth Moulton for America. The three-term Massachusetts congressman didn’t make the cutoff for the June debates, and hasn’t captured much media attention, either. His slogan plays it safe, making sure you remember his entire name. He’s less cautious on Twitter, where he’s advocated for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Grade: C.
Beto O’Rourke: Beto for America. I’d have gone with “Bet on Beto,” but that’s just me. The former Texas congressman, who lost a U.S. Senate race in 2018 to the incumbent, Ted Cruz, uses a logo with chiseled sans-serifs and a vague military-insignia-for-the-apocalypse sensibility. Grade: C.
Joe Sestak: Accountability to America. Before being elected to the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania (2007 to 2011), Sestak was a three-star vice admiral in the U.S. Navy. Thus “ADM” in his amateurish logo, although he appears to want it both ways: military deference and first-name folksiness. (Why no period after “ADM”? I have no idea, but my first reaction was to wonder whether it was an acronym.) As for “Accountability to America,” who says stuff like that? And why? Sure, he’ll be accountable to America, but that’s a low bar indeed. And what is up with that logo, which looks like an unblinking eye whose pupil is not just the U.S. of A. but also Central and South America? Grade: D-.
The Future Begins Tomorrow
Republicans like to stand athwart history, yelling Stop, as the conservative pundit William F. Buckley famously said. Not Democrats: They’re “building a bridge to the 21st century” (Bill Clinton), stumping for “prosperity and progress” (Al Gore), and marching “forward” (Barack Obama). Three 2020 candidates also have their eyes on the horizon.
Joe Biden: Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead. The former vice president’s slogan manages to look backward as well as forward—consider that wishful, wistful “still.” It’s nice that he uses the first person plural (keep reading for more examples of that trend), but the six-word, full-sentence slogan sounds anachronistically formal and fussy, and doesn’t do much to update the 76-year-old candidate’s image. Grade: C+.
John Delaney: Focus on the Future. “For too long, the conversation in politics has been about trying to return to the past instead of focusing on the most important thing — the future,” Delaney tells us on his website. Is the former entrepreneur and current Maryland congressman commanding us to pay attention? Or is “focus” a noun here, in which case it has uncomfortable echoes of the right-wing, Christianist Focus on the Family? Either way, the slogan is a platitude that doesn’t say anything distinctive about the candidate. Grade: C.
Tim Ryan: Our Future Is Now. This is the Midwestern Ryan who isn’t the former Speaker of the House. (He’s represented Ohio’s 13th district since 2003.) If you’re having trouble remembering him, his slogan won’t help. “Our Future Is Now” sounds like something a candidate for senior class president would say—it’s a vapid cliché. Besides, if our future is now, what’s our present? Grade: C-.
Kirsten Gillibrand: Brave Wins. “Brave doesn’t pit people against one another,” the junior senator from New York said in her campaign-announcement video. “Brave doesn’t put money over lives. Brave doesn’t spread hate, cloud truth, build a wall. That's what fear does.” This is an example of anthimeria: in this case, turning an adjective (brave) into a noun (instead of, say, bravery or courage). Anthimeria is a popular trend in advertising, as I’ve noted here on many occasions, but it can be confusing in political speech. Is Gillibrand contrasting “brave wins” with “cowardly losses”? Grade: B-
Accentuate the Negative
It takes a certain brave, as Kirsten Gillibrand might put it, to lead with a negative word. And Mike Gravel (age 89) and Bernie Sanders (age 77) are just the cantankerous old coots to go for it.
Mike Gravel: No More Wars. The former U.S. senator from Alaska is a one-issue candidate, and his slogan couldn’t be more to the point. He was also a candidate in the 2008 race; his silent campaign video, which ended with him tossing a big rock into a body of water, looked like it came from the French Nouvelle Vague. This year he has a new video, “Rock 2.0,” which ends with the candidate, now leaning on a walking stick, saying, “It’s time to make some waves for change.” Grade: A- for simplicity and consistency.
Bernie Sanders: Not Me. Us. I’m glad to see the Vermont senator moving away from “Feel the Bern.” (As fellow name developer Laurel Sutton pointed out in 2015, “it’s probably not a good idea to base your presidential campaign brand around a pun like this one.”) And the pithy new slogan is a pointed effort to deflect from the cult of personality stoked by diehard “Berniebros.” The graphics are great, and the large US carries an added meaning of “United States.” His logo still insists that he’s just “Bernie,” but Sanders’s website leads with this humblebrag: “No one candidate, not even the greatest candidate you could imagine, is capable of taking on Donald Trump and the billionaire class alone. There is only one way we win — and that is together.” Grade: A-.
We the People
Putting people in your slogan can align you with the proletariat, the folks next door, or the voting citizenry. It all depends on how you slant it.
Bill de Blasio: Working People First. The very tall mayor of New York City wants us to know he’s for the little guy, and not those fat-cat capitalists. It all sounds very ... workmanlike. Earnest but not inspiring. C+.
Kamala Harris: For the People. “For the people” is how prosecutors introduce themselves in court: they’re representing the state against the defendant or plaintiff. Senator Harris, a former district attorney and attorney general, reminds us of her career experience, which will please some of the people some of the time while sounding ominous to those who don’t approve of her harsher positions. The colors and typography of her logo are said to have been inspired by the 1970s presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. (Chisholm’s own slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” remains a classic of the genre.) Grade: B++, with an extra + for the excellent use of color and typography.
Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything, including a flexible plan for campaign slogans. She’s been using three of them, perhaps to test which one resonates best. If she asked me, which she hasn’t, I’d tell her to eliminate We Will Rebuild the Middle Class, which is more of a platform plank than a rallying cry. Win with Warren has a nice alliterative quality, and it’s always a good idea to win. Still … meh. The most distinctive of the three is We Persist, sometimes shortened to Persist, which evokes the Massachusetts senator’s February 2017 showdown with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who complained that Warren had violated a Senate rule. “She was warned,” said McConnell. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Bonus points for Warren’s consistent use of “Liberty green”—the color of the Statue of Liberty. Grade: A for “Persist,” C for the others.
First Person Plural
You can’t go wrong with inclusiveness. Or can you?
Cory Booker: We Rise .“When we join together and work together, we rise together,” says the New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark. Booker is the anti-Gravel: he accentuates the positive, and his lofty, inclusive slogan suggests both “rising above the fray” and “improving your life.” It also carries echoes of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” But it’s more of a speech title than a campaign slogan. Grade: A-.
Jay Inslee: Our Moment. The Washington governor is another single-issue candidate, campaigning on the urgency of addressing climate change. “Our Moment” strikes an appropriately dramatic note, and the first-person-plural pronoun is inclusive. Instead of wrapping himself in Old Glory, he’s chosen an astronaut’s view of the planet, and shades of eco-blue and green underscored by a threat-level-red bar. Grade: A.
Beto O’Rourke: We’re All in This Together. I know, man. And it’s a bummer. Grade: C-.
John Hickenlooper: Come Together. It may be a sign of my undying immaturity, but all I can think of is that 2014 movie with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd. Your mileage, especially if you’re a Beatles fan, may vary. Grade: C-.
Into the Mystic
Lofty, amorous, touchy-feely: Some of the candidates aim for distinctiveness with language associated more closely with the pulpit or the consciousness-raising circle than with the campaign trail.
Julián Castro: One Nation, One Destiny. Take one part Pledge of Allegiance, splice with one part New Age Fantasyland. The former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development is a smart guy with some good ideas, but “destiny” is a skunked word evoking, among other things, fatalism and the 19th-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which Castro probably doesn’t endorse. Grade: C-.
Tulsi Gabbard: Lead with Love. The Hawaii representative identifies as the only Hindu in the U.S. congress, but her brand of Hinduism is not, shall we say, mainstream. An Army National Guard veteran, she now probably agrees with Mike Gravel about “no more wars,” and her slogan stakes out pacifist territory. The alliteration is pleasing, and it’s nice to see love getting a shout-out in national politics, but it all looks mushy to me. Grade: C+.
Marianne Williamson: Join the Evolution. I oppose practically everything that led Marianne Williamson, a popular speaker and author of New Age-y books, to the presidential debate stage, but I have to give her credit for savvy branding, if not for what Alex Pareene called her “hokey spiritual woo.” (I recommend Pareene’s article in the New Republic for anyone remotely curious about Williamson.) Williamson’s Instagram account is mesmerizing; her call for a Department of Peace is captivating. (And girlfriend, her wardrobe!) “Join the Evolution” is ingenious in its simplicity, a soft spin on revolution and, in its way, an affirmation of science. (Nice way to counter those who dismiss her as an anti-science crackpot.) And take a look at her color palette: deep purple, pink, and white. It’s unique among politicians and a standout in this crowd. Grade: A, although I’d vote for her only as a last resort.
Andrew Yang: Humanity First. A lawyer and entrepreneur who founded Venture for America, Yang entered the presidential race in November 2017 with zero government experience but a lot of avid support from the tech community. His platform is “human-centered capitalism”; he advocates a $1,000-a-month universal basic income and told Psychology Today that the “root cause” of American distress is “advancing technologies and automation of labor.” All of which helps explain “Humanity First,” which scores points for distinctiveness but fails to rise above the level of a TED Talk title. (Also, Andrew: What about the animals?) Grade: B.
Steve Bullock: A Fair Shot for Everyone. Harry Truman, in his 1949 State of the Union address, proposed a domestic agenda he called a “Fair Deal.” Seven decades later, the governor of Montana may be riding on Truman’s coattails while adding a Second Amendment spin to appeal to his rootin’-tootin’-shootin’ home crowd. Or maybe he’s seen Hamilton, and he’s not throwing it away. I don’t like seeing “everyone” in slogans; it’s vague and flaccid. Grade: C+.
Michael Bennet: Building Opportunity Together. The Colorado senator is another smart guy who got some iffy branding advice. “Building Opportunity Together” is the theme of a corporate retreat, not a presidential campaign. And its acronym, alas, is BOT. Grade: D.
Tom Steyer : There’s nothing more powerful than the unified voice of the American people. Yes, that is the slogan of the newest and richest candidate in the Democratic field. A full sentence. Twelve words, without a single resounding verb. Not very powerful, Tom. Here’s our unified voice: Step aside. Grade: F.
Red, white and blah: Why are all these 2020 campaign logos so boring? (Washington Post)
Where Hillary Clinton’s marketing went wrong (Fritinancy)