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Campaign trail mix: A brief history of presidential theme songs

Every election season, politicians (and their spin doctors) select a song (or songs) that they hope will add some jazz to their campaigns. And as any presidential historian can confirm, the right song has the power to inspire, motivate and energize an electorate. This country’s first presidential campaign remains a case study for how a well-chosen campaign song — in this case “God Save Great Washington” (a play on “God Save the King”) — can boost a candidate’s bid for office.

Throughout this nation’s history, there have been a number of examples of how one song can make — or break — a political campaign. Some politicians commission their own original scores, while others tap into the popularity of hit songs. This listicle of the 10 most memorable campaign songs shows how picking the right music is a process that is only slightly less fraught than choosing the right candidate.

1. William Henry Harrison, 1840
“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too”

For many, the nation’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison (whose presidency was cut short due to health complications) has receded into the dustbin of history. But his savvy choice of campaign music shows that he was a candidate ahead of his time. The song “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” helped Harrison on the trail by reminding voters of his victory in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe against Native Americans, while slyly poking fun at his competition, the fastidious Martin Van Buren.

2. William Howard Taft, 1908
“Get on a Raft with Taft”

William H. Taft aspired to be a Supreme Court judge, not president of the United States. But Taft accepted the Republican nomination at the behest of Theodore Roosevelt, who tapped the zaftig former judge as his successor. During his bid for the White House, the former White House administrator encouraged voters to “Get on a Raft with Taft.” The song featured original lyrics.

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932
“Happy Days Are Here Again”

Written three years before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, Milton Anger and Jack Yellen’s 1929 song “Happy Days are Here Again” became the soundtrack for FDR’s historic three-term presidency. After the stock market crash of 1929, the U.S. spiraled into a dark period of economic uncertainty. On the cusp of the Great Depression, this relentlessly optimistic song reassured many rattled voters. It later went on to become the de facto anthem of the Democratic Party.

4. Richard Nixon, 1960
“Click with Dick”

During his 1960 bid for the White House, Richard Nixon’s campaign ran with an awkward tune that called on supporters to “Click with Dick.” While Nixon supporters even received their very own click-with-dick noisemakers, these bells and whistles were not enough to defeat his telegenic rival, John F. Kennedy.

5. George McGovern, 1972
“Bridge Over Troubled Water”

Simon and Garfunkel’s hit “Bridge Over Troubled Water” spent six weeks at number one when it was first released in 1970. But the Billboard pedigree was of little help to Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972. In fact, many felt the song was too subdued and solemn to work on the campaign trail. McGovern went on to lose against Richard Nixon, who used the upbeat and original “Nixon Now” in his ad campaigns.

6. Ronald Reagan, 1984
“Born in the USA”

Ronald Reagan sampled Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 mega-hit “Born in the USA” for his successful reelection campaign. For Reagan, the song was a patriotic cri de coeur. But for Springsteen, who objected to the campaign’s use of his song, “Born in the USA” was a meditation on the darker side of the American experience — in particular, the struggles of veterans returning home from the Vietnam War.

7. Bill Clinton, 1992
“Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)”

In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” to great effect. Often called the poster boy for the baby-boomer generation, Clinton underscored this generational shift with this groovy musical choice. Fleetwood Mac reunited for an evening on stage to perform the song for Clinton’s first-term inauguration in January 1993. His win marked the first time in 13 years that a Democrat would occupy the White House.

8. George W. Bush, 2004
“Still the One”

For his re-election campaign, George W. Bush choose Orleans’ 1976 chart-topping single “Still the One.” But the choice elicited the objection of Orleans band member John Hall. Of course, Bush won despite Hall’s protestations.

9. John McCain, 2008
“Running on Empty”

John McCain’s 2008 candidacy was memorable, but, depending on whom you ask, not always for the right reasons. Some questioned the candidate’s advanced age (McCain was 71 at the time) and his choice of the charismatic but unseasoned Sarah Palin as his running mate. Another campaign controversy involved McCain’s use of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” in his commercials. Browne ended up winning an undisclosed sum of money and an apology in his copyright case against McCain and the Republican Party for using his song without permission.

10. Barack Obama, 2008
“Yes We Can”

Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” wasn’t the official song of Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, but it went on to become a viral hit regardless. For many, this song and star-studded video crystalized the hope — or, as critics would argue, hype — surrounding Obama’s historic campaign.

 
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