Since the 19th century , the campaign song has been a staple of presidential elections. Jackson had “Hunters of Kentucky,” Lincoln had “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and even Penn’s own ill–fated William Henry Harrison was cranking out bangers like “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” In the 21st century, however, the art of the campaign song seems to have fallen by the wayside. Campaigns nowadays are more than happy to utilize premade songs from established artists, rather than create their own tunes. Even worse, the cultural democratization of the internet has led this vacuum to be filled by constituent hacks from across the political spectrum, be it Le Tigre’s oddball Clinton anthem “I’m With Her,” or Latinos for Trump's divisive new hit “Unity.” Things were much simpler in the mid 20th century, the true heyday of the campaign song. Communications were developed enough to disseminate media to audiences across the country, but before the art of the campaign song was lost to the sands of time. But even during this apex of the art form, some presidential candidates simply had more juice than others—the history of campaign music has some pretty clear winners and losers.
Harry S. Truman – LOSER
Truman’s campaign song suffers from the same problems as his presidency—a simple lack of originality. Just as Truman tried to sell his policies by borrowing from the agenda of his more popular predecessor, his campaign song, “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” was cribbed directly from the hit Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” albeit with some minor lyrical alterations. While he may have won the election, the point of art is not simply to achieve one’s material ends, but to realize in the world something of spiritual beauty. The dearth of ingenuity in the Truman campaign’s music department leads him to be one of the 20th century’s greatest LOSERS.
Dwight Eisenhower – WINNER
The Eisenhower campaign’s songwriting department truly brought the heat with the help of master lyricist Irving Berlin, who included the song “They Like Ike” in his musical "Call Me Madam." Rather than trying to sell any sort of political platform, Berlin’s piece presents Eisenhower as a humble leader loved by his people, and the only viable option to end the 20 years of Democratic control that had preceded the 1952 election. The similarly named jingle “I Like Ike” has a driving patter that drills the slogan “Ike for President” deep into your skull, like an earworm nearly impossible to extract. The simple yet effective lyrics and relative originality of the Eisenhower campaign’s songs make his music department a strong contender for the best of the postwar era.
Adlai Stevenson – LOSER
The music of the Stevenson campaign has the same enthusiasm as that of the Eisenhower campaign, but with none of the effortless charisma. Instead, the militaristic shouts of the Stevenson volunteers reek of desperation and fear. Songs like “Stevenson, Stevenson” and “Democratic March” are composed in the traditional march style. But where the Eisenhower campaign’s music swings and has a playful charm, the Stevenson pieces seem like rallying cries to a war that no one is all too excited about fighting in. And song titles like “Adlai is Gonna Win This Time” are just kind of sad (spoiler: he did not, in fact, win that time).
John F. Kennedy – WINNER
In the same way he (allegedly) used Chicago Mob connections to win the election, Kennedy called in every favor he could in the musical sector. Heavy–hitter Frank Sinatra adapted his song “High Hopes” for use in Kennedy’s campaign—much better than the Pete Buttigieg campaign song of the same name. Like any good Sinatra song, it has a certain swing that captures the essence of the Kennedy vibe: suave, cool and collected. Paired with the campaign trail classic “Kennedy for Me,” the Kennedy campaign understood the assignment perfectly. A campaign song is not a place to articulate the minutiae of policy, but a way to drill the general vibe of a candidate into voter’s heads.
Everyone from 1980 to 1996 – DISQUALIFIED
The Reagan presidency spelled the death of both Keynesianism in America and the proud tradition of the campaign song. Every presidential contender since Reagan ,with two notable exceptions, has contented themselves with simply borrowing the songs of others for their campaigns. Such conduct is downright unpresidential—if you aren’t capable of creating a single song, how will you ever create change at the national level? The worst offender in this category of compositional cowards was 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who somehow thought it was acceptable to use the theme song from “Rocky” to represent his campaign. Perhaps he lost for a reason.
George H.W. Bush – ????
Some historical records show that the Elder Bush’s 1988 campaign utilized a song by Willie Barrow and Sylvia Johns Cain titled simply “The George Bush Song.” Extensive searches have not turned up a single recording of this song, a description of its content or even proof that its alleged performers actually exist. If any readers can verify the existence of this composition, please email the author of this article at your earliest convenience.
Bob Dole – LOSER
You have to respect Bob Dole for being the last to play the game.Ever since his campaign in 1996, no major party candidate has attempted to make their own campaign song. Sadly, this is perhaps the only thing you have to respect Dole for. In addition to bungling his presidential campaign, Dole was also responsible for bringing into the world perhaps the most bizarre song on this list: “Dole Man,” an oxymoronic Republican take on the ‘60s hit “Soul Man.” Incredibly, it appears that the only reason for the song’s existence was the fact that “Soul” rhymes with “Dole.” Unfortunately, “Dole Man” crashed and burned even faster than his actual campaign, as legal action from the song’s original writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter prevented him from using the song at rallies. Like Bush’s song, no actual performance of “Dole Man” appears to exist online, but if this clip from his 1988 campaign is any indication of the quality of his music department, nothing of value was lost.
In his seminal 1967 work Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes a “degradation of all life” from valuing being into having, then having into appearing. The campaign song’s prevalence reflects exactly this degradation. Mass politics is no longer about being a good person with good policy, but the appearance of confidence and charisma. As such, the best campaign songs are those that exude a good vibe and make a candidate appear as likable as possible. The end of the “official” campaign song doesn’t mean that the age of vanity in politics has come to an end—it simply means that the cultural war has a new battlefield. But memes and social media outreach have always seemed terribly uncouth compared to the refinement and beautiful energy that a good campaign song brings to the table. Despite it all, dear reader, I implore you, do not mourn the death of this noble genre. For even though politics is nastier, more partisan and less hopeful than ever before—at least we have “Dole Man.”