The Best and Worst Political Campaign Songs (But Mostly the Worst)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With presidential campaigns already gearing up for 2020, candidates are beginning to rally their bases, retool their talking points, and select their campaign songs—those upbeat little ditties that play at rallies, speeches and pretty much whenever a candidate walks on stage.

The art of choosing the right campaign song is not as straightforward as it may seem. For hundreds of years now, U.S. presidential candidates, world leaders, and even a few dictators have found themselves flummoxed, mocked, and, more often than you’d think, sued for selecting the wrong tune.

Here’s a list of a few of the most notable, scandalous, ridiculous, or downright brilliant campaign songs ever used.

1. Saddam Hussein: "I Will Always Love You"

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s selection of Whitney Houston’s "I Will Always Love You" for his sham campaign in 2002 is perhaps the most wonderful, if nonsensical, choice of a campaign song in political history. Syrian pop star Mayyada Bselees’ Arabic cover of the soaring love ballad (written and originally performed by Dolly Parton) was broadcast on dawn-to-dusk radio spots from Baghdad to Basra endorsing the mustachioed autocrat—just before the U.S.-led bombing campaign began in 2003.

2. Ronald Reagan: "Born in the U.S.A."

When Ronald Reagan chose Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as his campaign song in 1984, a collective gasp echoed across the nation. Anyone who has actually listened to the lyrics knows it’s a seething anti-war anthem, delineating, among other things, U.S. military failures in Vietnam: “I had a buddy at Khe Sahn/Fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there, he’s all gone.”

3. Hillary Clinton: "Captain Jack"

Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t had much better luck choosing her campaign ditties. In 2000, she used Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” at a rally—a song her opponent, Rudy Giuliani, gleefully pointed out is about things like getting high and masturbating.

Eight years later, during the Democratic presidential primary, Clinton let her fans go online and vote on her campaign song—a nice, democratic idea that turned into a bit of a debacle when conservative pundits began offering their own suggestions. David Brooks of The New York Times offered Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” Jon Sanders of Townhall.com suggested R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” and Rush Limbaugh struck below the belt with Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-lovin’ “Baby Got Back.”

Clinton ended up going with Celine Dion’s travel-themed love song, “You and I."

4. Silvio Berlusconi: "Thank Goodness for Silvio"

For nearly a decade, Italy’s playboy-president, Silvio Berlusconi, had been campaigning to an original tune, the title of which loosely translates to “Thank Goodness for Silvio.” Anyone familiar with Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga debacle won’t be surprised to find out that “Thank Goodness for Silvio” comes with a series of campaign music videos, which have played regularly over the years on Italian television, and feature beautiful women hanging out in beauty salons, walking on treadmills, and performing water aerobics, while singing longingly into the camera about how great Il Cavalere really is.

5. John Quincy Adams: "Little Know Ye Who's Coming"

George Washington also went with an original tune, “God Save Great Washington,“ a rather thinly veiled knock-off of “God Save the Queen”—an interesting choice for the Redcoat-vanquishing general. But Washington’s vaguely pro-royalist jam is nothing compared to John Quincy Adams’ campaign song a few decades later, which unlike most campaign songs that try for a more positive approach, actively threatened voters if they didn’t vote for him: "Fire's a-comin', swords a-comin'/pistols, guns and knives are comin'/...if John Quincy not be comin'," the singer crooned. Despite the threats, Adams lost the 1828 race to Andrew Jackson.

6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "Happy Days Are Here Again"

It wasn’t until 1932, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, that a pre-existing campaign song was used—and it happened rather by accident. At a campaign rally one day, the man charged with introducing Roosevelt did such a terrible job, the soon-to-be president’s advisors wanted to play something—anything—to get the bad taste out of the audience’s mouth before FDR took the stage. The chirpy ditty, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” from the 1930 musical Chasing Rainbows, just happened to be lying around. The jangly tune was such a hit, Democratic candidates used it for the next few decades, forever associating it with the party.

7. George W. Bush and Others: "Right Now"

For a few years, beginning in 2006, Van Halen’s rousing jam “Right Now” became the unofficial theme song of the Republican party, with George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and John McCain all rocking out to the hit that was MTV's 1992 Video of the Year. That is, until someone pointed out that the song comes from an album entitled For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, which refers to criminal sodomy, and features a not-so-family-values acronym. The video laments, "Right now oil companies and old men are in control."

The Van Halen kerfuffle was just one of many problems Republican candidates in the U.S. have faced in recent years. In 2008, for instance, John Mellencamp, Boston, Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, Heart, and a composer named Christopher Lennertz all asked the McCain/Palin campaign to stop grooving to their tunes. In 2012, Tom Petty asked GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann to quit blasting “American Girl.” (He also balked when George W. Bush co-opted his defiant anthem, “I Won’t Back Down,” in 2004.)

8. Angela Merkel: "Angie"

German chancellor Angela Merkel ran into similar trouble in her reelection campaign in 2005, when she chose the Rolling Stones’ break-up song, “Angie,” as her theme song—without the band’s permission, and apparently without actually listening to the lyrics, which aren’t ideal for an incumbent: “With no loving in our souls, and no money in our coats/You can’t say we’re satisfied … /All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke/…Ain’t it time we said goodbye?”

9. Bob Dole: "I'm a Dole Man"

In 1996, Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole also went with the name-related theme, changing the lyrics to the 1960s classic “I’m a Soul Man” to “I’m a Dole Man.” A representative for the original song, which was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, performed by Sam & Dave, and at the top of the charts in 1967, demanded that the Dole campaign pay $100,000 in damages for every time the song was played on the campaign trail. A settlement was later reached—and Dole never played that song again.

10: Barack Obama: "Hold On, I'm Comin'"

When Barack Obama's campaign used Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" in 2008, the Sam half of the R&B duo (Sam Moore) told them to stop because he had not endorsed the candidate. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Moore had other problems with the use of the tune: "When the song was first recorded by Dave and myself, it was pulled off the market because it had such sexual orientations. I don't want to get graphic with this, but how do you take a song about getting girls and turn it into a political thing? Somebody's really desperate!"

11: Hugo Chavez: Impromptu Hillary Clinton ditty

The melodramatic former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, didn’t have a campaign song, exactly, but he did interrupt one of his own speeches to sing a little ditty to Hillary Clinton. “I’m not much loved by Hillary Clinton,” he crooned. “And I don’t love her either, lada da da!” The song was short, but it was a crowd-pleaser—the assembled students cheered him on for several minutes afterward.

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

After nearly one year of campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kamala Harris has officially bowed out of the 2020 election. She's not the only would-be president to call it quits so far. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

Can You Pick the Rights in the Bill of Rights?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER