Change, The Real Thing

There is another race that Senator Barack Obama has won hands-down.

He’s the only one with a decent logo. The Obama campaign has developed a contained, clear graphic that conveys just about everything most folks feel they need to know.

People know Obama’s got good design on his side, too. Next time there’s news of an Obama speech, take a look at the photo: often, it’ll be a stark image of the Senator against a dark background, so he stands out. Hovering, a bit out of focus, behind the Senator, will be that logo.

The fact of this logo’s existence says more than you might think about his candidacy. No other candidate has one. Sure, other candidates may say they have a logo — but it’s all just little wavy flags or bold stars surrounding their names. That Obama logo marks that the campaign, in part, has been about building a “brand.”

But we are not in an ad campaign; we are in an election campaign. The competition is far different than that between soft drinks. If I buy The Real Thing today, I can turn around and Do The Dew tomorrow. But the act of voting is more than simply stating a preference.

We go to a special place in order to vote, having in most cases waited in a line with others who are about to do the same thing. Tension mounts; we see our neighbors. The American flags and officious posters on the walls, the intent poll-watchers skulking about, the earnest volunteer election judges — it all adds to the seriousness. Even if I was not really focusing last night, or the week before, I sure am now, in line.

As I enter the booth, the import of my task strikes me. (I hear a similar thing happens among juries.)

On some level, I begin to realize I am not just saying who I “like” more, or who I would more rather go to Applebee’s with. Nor am I “hiring” someone for a “job.” I am, instead, making a choice that I believe ought to be binding on my fellow citizens. I am choosing for them as much as I am choosing for me.

Veteran political consultants know that the rules of the commercial world do not fully apply in election campaigns. While the two worlds use many of the same tools, they are different in important respects. Candidates who consciously proclaim “a different kind of message” run a risk when it comes to be crunch time. Because, for all of our complaining that campaigns have become a beauty contest — it’s not exactly so. Buzz, as we saw during Howard Dean’s candidacy, does not necessarily translate into votes.

But, from observing the Obama campaign’s mien over the last weeks, it seems the Senator or his strategists do indeed know the difference between ads and elections — you see that logo less and less these days.

The Clinton campaign now has a slim reed on which to hang, which is that the hard work that has gone before will pay dividends and allow her to hang on into the spring. But it is not a foregone conclusion that the slogging work of politics can overtake the undeniable allure of a powerful message and a charismatic messenger — which has now begun to focus like a laser on closing the deal.

I am a bit hopeful that the primary season will wear on, tiresome as it can be. I do know it may well be over soon. But the fight does the candidates good, and pays dividends to us citizens at home: Watching the repeated primaries, I am invited to check my own opinions — Who would I have voted for last Tuesday? How about the Tuesday a few weeks before? My thoughts become clearer week by week and, eventually, along with my neighbor’s and fellow citizens across the country, they build up to a collective judgment of who ought to be the nominee. Such judgments are improved by age.

I may be old-fashioned, but I am glad there is still an area of public life that we continue to keep closed off from the marketers. When we draw the curtain in the voting booth, even if we may not articulate this to ourselves, each of us stakes our own tiny claim for the seriousness of the task before us.

(Images from campaign websites.)

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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