How To Master The Fine Art Of Political Symbolism

NPR icon by Alan Greenblatt
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Darren Abate

Texas Republicans can't get hold of enough guns.

Greg Abbott, the party's frontrunner for governor, posed for a recent cover of Texas Monthly with a rifle over his shoulder. Nearly every other GOP statewide candidate has put out pictures or videos proudly displaying firearms.

"Perception becomes reality in so many areas," says state Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor. "Voters want to know who you are and what you stand for, and your comfort level with what you're talking about."

It's not just Texas, and it's not just guns.

For all the innovations wrought by technology, politicians around the country — and around the globe — continue to embrace the most basic symbols as a means of getting their points across more powerfully to voters.

"It sends a subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, message about who you are and what's important to you," says David Heller, a Democratic media consultant.

Whether it's holding the flag, wearing a pin or posing alongside individuals of obvious ethnic identity, candidates know that symbol-laden pictures often speak louder than words.

"These sorts of images just stay with us better than text," says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political scientist at the University of North Texas. "We're better able to remember something that's striking visually."

Belonging To The Team

Politicians and their handlers understand it makes no sense to announce new policies on education from inside a conference room when they can easily find a classroom that will provide a more telling backdrop.

The same holds true with hospitals, or groups of farmers, or other photo-friendly settings.

"We don't believe for one second that Democrats ought to be ceding the symbolism of the flag or church or any other widely respected institution to the Republicans," Heller says.

Symbols become more prominent at moments of conflict, says David Butz, a Morehead State University psychologist who has studied political imagery.

"Symbols serve as reminders of group membership, that you're part of something, whether you're part of a nation or a subgroup within that nation," Butz says. "In times of war and especially after Sept. 11, flag displays become pervasive."

Photo Ops May Backfire

Nothing seems more phony than a politician trying to appropriate a symbol to which he has no real connection.

"Don't walk around with your wife and kids in every shot if you're running around on the side," says Heller.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew Bronx cheers when he announced in Massachusetts that he was rooting for the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 World Series. "Maybe the Devil made him do it," opined the Daily News.

When a politician tries to prove his bona fides through the use of props or symbols and fails to pull it off, such missteps can linger in the mind longer than an errant remark, whether it's Michael Dukakis drawing unflattering comparisons to Snoopy after riding around in a tank during the 1988 presidential race or John Kerry offending Philadelphia sensibilities by asking for Swiss cheese to adorn his cheesesteak hoagie a decade ago.

"Gerald Ford trying to eat a tamale and biting through the corn husk is still in textbooks," says Eshbaugh-Soha, the UNT professor, referring to an infamous 1976 presidential campaign trail gaffe at the Alamo.

Gaming Out The Situation

For that reason, campaign aides and consultants think long and hard about staging photo ops.

President Obama is drawing some criticism from conservative quarters right now for embarking on a long, expensive vacation in Hawaii. Back in 1996, President Bill Clinton went camping in the mountains due to polls that suggested vacationing in tony Martha's Vineyard had come across as elitist.

In an early episode of HBO's Veep, the vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is set to visit a yogurt shop that's owned by "three generations of African Americans," as one aide notes. "There's a narrative built right in."

Her team then debates what flavor she should order. Mint suggests "freshness, trust, traditional values," one character suggests, while swirl hints of "racial harmony, crossing the aisle."

Such decisions are no joke, says Republican media consultant Doug McAuliffe. While corporations spend millions testing and honing images, political campaigns too often make decisions out of hand.

He notes that during the recent campaign for attorney general in Virginia, he and other aides to Mark Obenshain spent considerable time debating what colors to use in graphics. Republicans traditionally favor red, white and blue, McAuliffe notes, but "the colors that appeal to women are blue and green.

"That's the great art of this business," McAuliffe says, "understanding how voters are going to react and how the press is going to run with it."

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