Snappy one-liners help political candidates conquer their opposition

Just four little words helped Bill Clinton sail to victory over incumbent President George H.W. Bush in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Clinton’s unofficial campaign slogan encapsulated many Americans’ concerns about the flagging economy and positioned Bush as failing in domestic policy.

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So effective was the slogan that 20 years later presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney resurrected it, using it as ammunition against his Democratic rival, President Obama.

Obama “will run a campaign of diversions, distractions and distortions,” Romney said in speech in New Hampshire in late April. But, he went on, “it’s still about the economy … and we’re not stupid.”

Such campaign one-liners don’t just serve as clever digs against the opposition. More than that, they can help distill a candidate’s position on key issues and sway voters when it comes time to cast their ballots.

“The independents or swing voters who are not sure what they are going to do and maybe focus on the race in the last two weeks could be very strongly influenced by that one thing they remember that relates to a major issue of concern to them and a major issue that’s on the campaign agenda,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American

Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

“So for a candidate to find a way to associate themselves with that issue in a way that is easy to remember is very, very helpful,” he added.

So useful are campaign one-liners in presidential elections that they share the same qualities as propaganda, said Kimberly Meltzer, a professor of communications at Georgetown University.

“Campaign one-liners are sound bites; they act as heuristic devices, which are mental shortcuts for the audience,” she said. “And the reason they work is because they usually activate ideas or phrases that we already possess in our mental frameworks, or they try to create new ones. That’s why they’re so easy to remember and likely to generate buzz — they connect to ideas we already possess.”

Tapping into the consciousness of millions of potential voters is no easy feat, however. Presidential candidates and their campaign strategists invest a great deal of time and energy into coming up with memorable one-liners that highlight the weakness of the opposition party on key voting issues.

“I think if you got the smartest political consultants in a room, they’re only going to have a 10 percent chance of giving you one that works,” said Joseph Graf, a public communication professor at American University.

“What is it about an insult that makes it stick?” he asked. “Sometimes it tags a stereotype, sometimes it tags a bit of truth about somebody, but a lot of times we’re just not sure why something resonates the way it does. It’s really an inexact science. It’s a big guessing game.”

Those that have stuck in the American consciousness include such classics as “Where’s the beef?,” a reworked fast-food slogan former vice president Walter Mondale aimed at rival

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Gary Hart’s (D-Colo.) policies in 1984.

Another, “I knew Jack Kennedy … Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy,” was an effective swipe against Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) during the 1988 vice presidential debate.

Experts were hard-pressed to quantify how many of politicians’ most memorable one-liners such as these were pre-planned as opposed to spontaneous. But the consensus was that as political campaigns become increasingly coordinated, it’s likely most modern utterances are pre-written and tested.

“Thirty years ago, it was more off the cuff,” Graf said. “Candidates are so orchestrated now that it’s hard to believe that any of these one-liners was just something that came to them.”

And when asked if they could recall any campaign one-liners that skewed toward the positive, experts were also at a relative loss.

Herrnson noted that Obama’s 2008 campaign was more positive than those in the past, but both Obama and GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) benefited from others doing the negative campaigning on their behalf. And that trend is unlikely to change in the future.

“A lot of what people would call the ‘zingers’ are now being done by political action committees, super-PACs and 501(c) organizations,” he said.

Graf echoed the sentiment, noting that most modern one-liners tend to be delivered with disdain or contempt as campaigns seek to frame their opponents in a particular light.

“We’ve got more voices, and I think they are going to be negative voices,” he said.

And as campaign messages on television, radio and the Internet increase, it can prove overwhelming for voters, thus increasing the need for one-liners.

“ ‘I’ve got so much stuff in front of me, I need some way to sort it out. “Ah-ha. Bush is a wimp,” that’s the frame in which I see everything,’ ” Graf said as an example. “There’s so much out there that when you get that frame, you get that one-liner that really catches hold, it becomes all the more powerful.

“We all need these things — we need this sort of shorthand to get through the day and process information,” he said.

Such political shorthand can prove a double-edged sword, however.

“On one hand, these kinds of lines are able to be understood easily, remembered and sometimes acted upon. But there is a risk that people may … remember it without [recalling] the whole context,” Meltzer said. “People could come to disassociate the line itself from the real issue or meaning. That is a concern or a risk.”

But as technology continues to change the way voters receive and process information, it also allows them to participate in the process in new and surprising ways.

No longer are one-liners the sole distillation of campaign issues. Today it’s the campaign Internet meme that can catch on and reach millions of people in mere hours.

Graf cited Romney putting his dog on top of the family car during a vacation and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) large bill with high-end jeweler Tiffany & Co. as two recent, popular memes that can include video, a picture or a caption in addition to dialogue.

“That’s sort of a 21st-century version of the one-liner,” he said. “It sort of gives the public the power to create these one-liners.”

Regardless of which format one-liners take in the lead-up to November, experts are fairly certain that the most memorable ones will tackle one crucial issue.

“I think it’s the economy,” Graf said. “Everybody thinks that.

“The one-liner against Romney is the rich guy, the privileged background, so that might be what the Obama campaign is thinking about,” he added. “And a one-liner from the Romney campaign is something about inaction.”

All that could change, though, as the candidates approach the convention and the presidential debates, Herrnson said. Until then, they will likely remain mum as their teams work tirelessly to identify opponent weaknesses and solidify their own positions.

“Why try to commit to something early at this stage when there’s a potential that the major issue could change?” he said. “During the debates, [that’s when] that one big line will probably emerge and be repeated.”