With Hillary joining Adlai among the ranks of first name candidates who didn’t quite make it, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama is settling in for the long haul following his hard-won delegate victory earlier this week — and for the more visually-inclined among us, it’s tempting to linger over the role played by visual imagery in his campaign. Whether you believe the rhetoric about Obama's being “the largest grassroots movement in the history of presidential politics” (or not) probably depends upon the amount of time you spend on the Internet, and relates, too, to your familiarity with American campaign history. In my lifetime, many grassroots campaigns have been waged and won (Truman, Carter) — and lost (Humphrey, McGovern) — so I suspect Obama's experience is not as unique as his campaign might otherwise claim.
By my own accounting, a memorable visual campaign comes along about once every fifty years. In 1912, the Progressive Party fielded one of the most colorful candidates in American politics, former President Theodore Roosevelt. Saying he “felt like a bull moose,” TR deftly created a colorful mascot/name for his party. Unfortunately, he lost to Woodrow Wilson, and by 1915 the Bull Moose Progressives were history.
"How They’re Acting—and How They Feel." Published November 5, 1912, courtesy of The National Archives.
The mid-century elections are salient not only for being the first televised, but for having provided one of the catchiest slogans in American electoral politics — "I like Ike." Fortunately, the Republican candidate had a memorable nickname and, although he didn’t come up with his own party moniker, Ike was bound to be liked in ’52, and liked “even better” in ’56. Nothing in recent election history — not even the famous “Morning in America” theme for Regan’s second term — can compare. The best the ’52 opposition could muster was a forgettable song: “I love the Gov.”
Over fifty years have flown by, and it was past time for another turn of the glyph. In a wonderful post from January of this year, Armin Vit first brought our attention to the manifold variations in Barack Obama’s graphic identity.
If it seems too hyperbolic to suggest that Obama stands as one of the most cleverly branded candidates in our history, look closer. While his website is wrapped in the requisite red, white and blue, the emphasis clearly favors the blue — arguably the most calming and ethereal of these colors. And not only is his marque all inclusive (not unlike the “Googleization” of every special interest group) but people, even designers, seem to really like it. Without a catchy nickname to lean on, we can better appreciate Obama for having the perspicacity to expend real capital in the creation of an effective symbolic legacy.
It’s not easy to brand a phoneme. Other entities, ranging from Oprah Winfrey to the University of Oregon, have attempted to lay claim to the fifteenth letter of the Roman alphabet with mixed success. But to date, no one has been remotely as successful in so short a time as the Obama campaign. Remember the lame attempts to link Dubbya to the 23rd letter four years ago? After all is said and done, who would have ever imagined that visual literacy would go mainstream on the campaign trail? What’s next? Campaign finance reform? No children left behind? A return to print literacy? One can only ’ope.
David Stairs coordinates the graphic design program at Central Michigan University. He is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, and the executive director of Designers Without Borders.