“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was the first official presidential campaign slogan. It belonged to William Henry Harrison, and referred to his 1811 battle victory against Tecumseh. But then you get his running mate, John Tyler, thrown in as well, presumably to give it that bouncy trochaic meter. It’s awfully catchy; no wonder Harrison won the election. (If only he’d put equal effort to staying warm during his inaugural speech—the man got sick and died of pneumonia a month later.) It also ushered in the era of synergy between advertising and political campaigns, a state of affairs that has only deepened. Thereafter, no presidential campaign was complete without its attendant slogan, whether cooked up in the back rooms of campaign offices or rigorously focus-tested into existence, as is more often the case today.
But the transition to hashtag culture has led to an attendant transformation of what it means to have a campaign slogan. These slogans now have much more to do with a community of people online than a media strategy. Hillary Clinton’s campaign team likely had no idea #ImWithHer would become the defining phrase of her race. In fact, the initial slogan her campaign spent untold hours and money developing was the much more generic “This Starts With You,” a phrase that has probably been uttered more times by Pat Sajak than by anyone affiliated with Clinton’s team since. (And it was far from the only one the campaign has attempted—in late May the Clinton team unveiled new slogan “Stronger Together,” roughly the seventh one they’ve tried to launch, again to lukewarm reception.)
Hashtags are crowdsourced and battle-tested in a way previous slogans never were. An online Darwinian winnowing takes place, and only the strong—or most adaptable—survive. It’s the ultimate mass-market research, as people latch onto slogans and hashtags for which they feel the most affinity. Further, it opens up the field of sloganeering to everyone. A hashtag by its very nature belongs to everyone and anyone, to use as they see fit. The campaigns can spend millions trying to connect with voters, but a single woman typing in her apartment can reshape online debate over a candidate with a single off-the-cuff hashtag. (#HillarySoQualified, in this example, which then led to its own ironic re-appropriation by her opponents.)
But while campaigns are busily rallying supporters on social media, they don’t necessarily consider it to be a place for useful advertising. “It’s a lot more riding the wave than trying to steer the social conversation one way or another,” says Andy Barr, a former political communications director and writer for Politico who now runs the media firm Saguaro Strategies, which focuses on targeted voter outreach.
That hashtag is a good example where they’ve tried a lot of things, and in some ways, the market tells you what works. You can test things as much as you want, but eventually, your supporters are just going to take over—whether you’re happy with whatever ends up sticking, it sort of ends up sticking in perpetuity with the campaign.
#ImWithHer started on Twitter, the birthplace of the hashtag. The social networking site initially used the symbol as a tactic for sorting groups (even as the company first rejected the idea), making it easier for users to search their interests and categorize their associations, but it quickly grew into something more. Users soon realized it could be put to a plethora of applications, including rudimentary slogans meant to readily create a way for multiple people to express a common opinion and be able to find one another in doing so. Cut to October 2015, when Bill Clinton was watching his wife in the debates, and decided to tweet his support:
As a Tennessee ABC News affiliate pointed out, Clinton’s tweet started the topic trending, garnering more than 9,000 retweets and birthing a new campaign slogan. It wouldn’t have happened had people not responded to the hashtag, seeing in it the simplest way to express solidarity with their candidate of choice. What makes it so potent as a slogan is the way it inserts the supporter directly into the race. It makes Hillary’s campaign about the voter, instead of merely the candidate. Rhetorically, it aligns people neatly alongside their chosen presidential contender—each person is “with” her, not “behind” her or “voting for” her—creating an ideologically strong identification with both Clinton and her base of support. (Those more lukewarm on the candidate, now that the alternative in the Democrat Party is done running, can slowly adjust to the idea by using the more equivocating but no less honest #GuessImWithHer.)
But political hashtags proliferate across social media, the short and pithy nature of the language an ideal way to more effectively sum up a stance or opinion, and even more importantly, have it readily shared and reproducible by others. Facebook is awash in reposted lengthy missives about the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders supporters feel for their candidate; typing #FeelTheBern gets the job done much quicker. Saying that you support those protesting the murder of young black citizens by an overly militarized police force can require an explanation, but the phrase #BlackLivesMatter stands in for a host of politically linked viewpoints, condensed into one rallying cry. And having to offer a different motivational speech every time you want to convey what it means to be strong, fight for what you think is right, and try your best is well and good, but for the rest of us, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” gets the job done nicely.
In some ways, hashtag slogans are the modern equivalent of sticking a sign in your yard. Rather than planting a “McCain/Palin” sign in your grass for your neighbors to see, you can simply tag your tweet, or Instagram, or Facebook post with your preferred candidate’s succinct phrase. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain is potent, even if it’s awfully long for a hashtag slogan. Its counterpoint, #NeverTrump, wins points for brevity (though if you’re more in the mood to mock the prior hashtag, John Oliver’s #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain is leading the charge.) It’s the digital equivalent of the old-school tactic of using a sign to show your support.
But the fleeting nature of most pop culture extends to political campaigns, as well. “I don’t know if it’s really possible to dominate a conversation, even within an hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute thing,” says Barr. “The best you can do is find things that you think are going to resonate given where the conversation is going on a certain day, and to throw out what you think is a good way to capture the energy or conversation of the day rather than trying to drive it. It’s just too big of an animal to try and steer one way or the other.” He stresses the way campaigns have to provide a ton of content for their online bases of support, videos and images that are hooky and ready to share:
At the end of the day, even with all the ads and other stuff, by far the most effective communication in politics is one-to-one. It’s your neighbor or friend or whoever, whose opinion you respect, talking favorably about that campaign. In a lot of ways, social is sort of providing and steering those individual conversations.
And that might be the most consistently undervalued aspect of political campaigns: the sense of community they generate among supporters. It doesn’t take much to create a shared association of people united in common cause. Whereas a yard sign may evoke a remote sense of affinity with someone, a hashtagged post creates opportunities for interaction. People don’t just click “like” or repost; they follow, DM, adapt or quote the source, and build a network that previously required work on the part of the campaign itself. The ease with which folks can put themselves to work online is precisely why skeptics like Malcolm Gladwell spurn its potential for political action and organizing, but that skepticism can’t measure the degree to which new bonds and associations form and endure. Even one new Facebook friend or Twitter follower can help start to build a longer-lasting relationship, as these social media bonds don’t dissolve when the election ends. That sort of easy-to-mock but difficult-to-quantify sorting process is rightly fretted over for its increasing polarization among different groups, but that same polarization generates the very communities most likely to spur one another to increased action or political engagement, however haltingly.
Hashtag political slogans are the social media equivalent of the Big Tent politics that define the two major parties. They’re a way to shoehorn into one mold people and groups who actually disagree profoundly about the nature of their party’s policies, its ideological makeup, and the shape of the country. Hashtags take vast swaths of very different voters, and make it seem as though they’re in lockstep. But that conversation among people who qualify as like-minded-enough allows for communication where none might otherwise exist. As Barr states, social media politics is about the supporters, not the campaign.
Politics, like most other human endeavors, is largely ruled by emotion. As The New Yorker’s Louis Menand has argued, many of the factors that influence and shape people’s political preferences are about as rational as voting for someone because you’ve had a lot of rain recently. (Sadly, that actually does influence people’s votes.) The social act of voting—namely, the cues you pick up from your neighbors, friends, and environment—dictate most people’s political persuasion far more than any rational calculation of self-interest. And slogans help do that, especially short, memorable ones, popularized in the crucible of collective interactions. #JebCanFixIt was an attempt to impose a slogan onto supporters, and it failed. #BernItDown is more nihilistic, but it gets used consistently thanks to its origins in and relevance to the actual people supporting Sanders. Presidential campaigns, when it comes to social media, need to learn to follow, and save the leading for after they win office.