At first glance, the typography of the Michele Bachmann campaign would seem to fit well within the standard designs that by now are meant to convey to us that there is lurking somewhere a seriousness and legitimacy attached to this campaign for the presidency: the requisite red and blue, the sober and slender fonts that were so successful for Obama last time, and a couple of red stars bracketing the bottom third for good measure. On some pages these stars are a properly conservative white, while on others they appear decisively red. They are certainly colored so only in order to satisfy certain compositional demands, and should in no way be misinterpreted as being due to any secret Bolshevik sympathies.
The Bachmann campaign imagery wants to indicate to us just how mainstream the candidate is, with its flags, pennants, and bunting layered impasto over every available surface. In this respect it stands as a kind of proto-imagery for American campaigns, earnest and simple, giving attention to surface and image and simulacrum wherever possible, while keeping actual policy or ideology as far in the background and as dimly lit as possible. It is thus the absolutely typical campaign, in every sense of the word.
There is just one small grace note that separates Bachmann’s logo from the field. In place of the horizontal bar connecting the pillars of the H in her name, we are given a frisson of patriotic red-and-white breaking free of its blue alphabetical strictures. You will note, incidentally, that American flags, even in attenuated forms, must always appear to be waving, whipped by the winds of freedom or some other such divine force. The calm rectangular flags are to be left for business lapels or Jasper Johns. This, of course, is why the staged and recreated shot of the soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima has permeated American culture far more than the shot of an astronaut on the airless moon standing beside the American flag, both man and flag looking rather stiff and brittle — this despite the fact that the moon is somewhat farther than the South Pacific.
In any event, let the flourish of Bachmann’s H stand for freedom, country, or whatever else the rhetorical grab-bag of faux-populism requires. The rictus of determination the candidate wears directs us to the image’s deeper meaning. In the last analysis, the mark that bridges and transcends the columns of that H looks like nothing so much as a desperate squirt of unsavory toothpaste.
The iconography of the Huntsman campaign, such as it is, appears to have been lifted wholesale from an off-brand luxury cruise line or your average hotel stationery. It shares with them a bland cosmopolitanism and a casual disregard for stimulating the nationalist senses, concerned instead with appearing to be clean and simple, in the way that a hard-boiled egg without salt or pepper or sauce appears to be clean and simple.
When burdened with an unfortunate last name (many of us can relate), one can of course opt to foreground the first name, as Hillary did in 2008, or a nickname, as Romney is doing now. For this reason we must not condemn Newt for choosing the zippier of his two names. The only problem in this case is that each of Newt Gingrich’s two names is worse than the other one.
As for the NEWT2012 image itself: What it possesses most of all is a quality of laziness, as if his many years in Washington were some kind of perverse incentive to avoid the honest work of constructing a campaign iconography suitable to the overt or subterranean desires of the contemporary American populace. One worries about the welfare of such a campaign, and if there is anyone who shall claim individual responsibility for it. We can say that the big blue star, just right of center, carries a kind of grade-school charm.
The palette here is quintessential Facebook Blue, the stark fields of white on the wide margins sending the eye inevitably to the center, thus speaking to the age group and political temperament the campaign believes to be especially critical to re-election.
For his re-election, Obama adopts several strategic differences. There is of course the chunkiness of the font to be dealt with. Gone are the spindly letters of the Obama ’08 campaign (they have migrated to Bachmann this time around). In their stead, we get a bright squat year to contemplate. The substitution of the year for the candidate’s name allows Obama to recede where he feels it is wise to recede, while also announcing to the world that at this point, he doesn’t even need his name atop the campaign imagery. Before it had been the “O”, with Obama ’08 visible all across the land. The name “Obama,” once unfamiliar and requiring the relentless exposure any candidacy needs, is now a few short years later secondary to the year 2012, as though this campaign were now less about the candidate, the name, or the individual than History itself.
The Obama sunrise was never a particularly striking image (but then again, neither are the golden arches). The point is that now, unlike in 2004 or 2008, the image, like the candidate, is intimately familiar the world over. No other candidate for the 2012 election can boast of being readily identifiable with just one letter. For Obama, our most voweled president, the O works perfectly: you get the elegance and cohesion and completion in a way that no other letter in the English language could match. In its continuation from 2008, with minor variations in color and style, Obama’s friends and enemies are meant to see the single promise these images hold out: With me, at this late hour, you know by now what to expect. The question is whether or not this message better serves his allies or his opposition.
Like Bachmann’s, the Ron Paul campaign also cannot resist the allure of the horizontal elements in the alphabet, and so his A gets the patriotic treatment, but here something seems amiss, unfinished. The sweeping red-and-white banner allows him to get all three required colors in, but they appear oddly shaped, malformed, as if they had set out with some good ideas but that those ideas in traveling had become broad and diffuse and indiscriminate, losing their point of origin, undershooting and overshooting their marks, racing past the points where it would have been sensible to stop. Paul’s A seems at war with itself, stately and sloppy all at once.
In Rick Perry’s oddly dull offering, the color scheme of its central icon is particularly objectionable, the blue bleeding into red, the red into blue, creating a purplish, muddled mess. But here as elsewhere we are dealing with a situation where the images are hamstrung, they have no choice, it seems, but to dabble only in variations in reds and blues. To do otherwise might court disaster in color-blind America. So Perry’s image feels it must embrace those separate shades but has no idea what to do with them. We recognize in Perry’s iconography the pharmaceutical sheen of a throat lozenge, as if Perry held out the hope for us of serving as a blue Pfizer pill against the impotence of secular, post-industrial America.
Perhaps all of this is by design. It behooves someone who speaks in the way this campaign’s candidate does to offer a visual pabulum to hapless voters, and in this particular respect Perry’s offering begins to exhibit something like a dim genius. Where Bachmann needed to remind the world that the office she is seeking is indeed that of the presidency (meaning she could not get away with proclaiming her name alone), that otherwise innocent third line of hers, “For President,” heretofore largely ignored, now becomes critically important. Perry’s version elides the preposition altogether, and offers us instead the stark, alliterative “Perry President,” situating his name in perihelial proximity to the presidency. This is a man with no patience for prepositions, or propositions. It is a rootless, Manichean syntax, one that even the Incredible Hulk could love.
Then there is the Romney brand, with what we are meant to see as the opening “R” of his name wedged coyly between waving fields of red and blue. This pattern is repeated, with slightly altered coloration, on all of the official campaign merchandise.
Romney’s soporific rhetoric wants to position itself against Obama (as with all other Republican candidates, Romney considers this the single most critical political platform to develop), but the campaign iconography wants to tell another story. The colors alone set it much closer to the Obama palette than do any of the other contenders, as it draws explicitly from the Obama ’08 campaign and current White House palettes: the blue is deep and rich, but clear signs of “brightness,” as if a light were shining on it in the way that parted clouds allow a sunbeam to illuminate a barn in Iowa. Perusing the online Romney Official Merchandise, one is struck by just how much all of it looks like the Obama merchandise of yore. Even the shirts for sale that mock Obama only seem to do so in a jocular, half-hearted way, as if Romney still wasn’t sure just how like or unlike Obama he wants to be.
That separated “R” also has the curious effect of transforming Romney to Omney, visually speaking. The slide from Romney to Omney seems to be an effort to bring his campaign within echoing distance of Obama’s, and that precious O that Obama has made his own since the previous election cycle. Throughout, Omney thus asks us to see him as both identical with Obama and radically distinct. Among the Republican contenders, his campaign is the only one that seems to betray a desire to be everything to everyone, an omnivoracious and indiscriminate candidacy.
Obama comes to you with open arms and open collar, as does Omney. Obama’s attire is in that demographically critical grey zone between working class and middle class, rugged casual, as is Omney’s. Standing or seated before you in plaid and khaki, backed by America’s industrial or agricultural bounty, they implore you to join one of them in this struggle.
At the tail end of the candidates being considered here, we have Rick Santorum. Again, we find the apparently necessary red and blue, but here it is larded with a rather sickly pallor. There is something pinkish and juvenile in this red. It’s the red you would expect a petulant child to select from the largest box of crayons, red to color the cows and the fields, red sky, red sea.
As with Bachmann and Paul, Santorum treats the center of his name as the sanctum sanctorum where the truth of his campaign’s dream of itself is laid. His O, unlike Obama’s many-colored, doggedly wholesome one, is a thin circle of stars and freedom, and in front of it, what could at this scale and simple level of detail be mistaken for a pigeon, just as we might not have seen that tiny word rainbowed amongst the stars had we not been looking closely enough. We are probably meant to assume it is a properly American eagle. Dispensing with flags and going directly for the lure of the symbolic animal, which we must gather he holds in rather higher esteem than non-symbolic ones, Santorum has seen an opening his political cohorts have neglected, and so he exploits it for all it is worth. The colors may be cloying, and the subtitle less pithy than those offered by every other candidate; and yet that noble bird coasts majestically, its wings spread across the circumference of a starred, patriotic orifice.