It would seem that the development of a strong campaign identity, and intuitively, an associated political identity, would be extremely important when seeking to capture votes in a close election. Take, for instance, the 2010 gubernatorial race in my birthplace of Michigan—known by some as America’s high-five and by everyone as a political swing state. Many of its electoral cycles have been a toss-up between one of two American political parties, Republican and Democratic, and their red and blue equivalents; thereby finding itself more often than not some variant shade of purple.
Who can forget the sans serif blue, green, and white of then-gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder’s campaign branding? His catchy campaign slogan, “One Tough Nerd”? Ah yes, everyone forgot that.
The truth of the matter is that the branding of individual, local political campaigns is rarely memorable. And so the best avenue through which to analyze campaign identities and what they might indicate is by finding larger trends in aggregate. The Center for American Politics and Design recently launched an archive of campaign graphics, beginning with this past midterm cycle, that makes logos sortable by color, typography, party, district lean, gender, state, and more. Put together it makes larger analysis possible.
As one of the organization’s founding members Kevin Wiesner put it, what they ultimately found is that “the vast majority of campaign branding is incredibly boring.” There are a few reasons for this lack of innovation: the practical fact that there’s an enormous range in campaign scales and operating budgets, for one. Secondly, the idea that what we might call “mediocre” in visual language seems to translate to “honest” or “authentic” values in political speak.
Zoom out and there is more to see, according to Wiesner:
- Yes, Republicans use more red (but not as pronounced as expected, because of the practical versatility of its counterpart, blue)
- There’s no difference between party affiliation and serif or sans serif font usage (though they had expected expected that Republican and Libertarian candidates would lean more toward the more established, authoritarian serif)
- The majority of purple logos are attributed to women candidates (though what a candidate saw and approved may be the result of values projected onto those candidates either by the designer or campaign staff, an issue more far-reaching than gender politics and color)
Several candidate identities have a look similar to existing corporate brands, like Smirnoff and Heineken. “Whenever the campaign logos take on the aspect of another industry they start to stand out significantly, and we can project connotations onto them… because that’s what we as consumers are used to doing when we see product logos,” says Wiesner. A good, though unintended, example of this is 2018 Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s black and white campaign logo. Although not a consideration as part of the original concept, constituents started to associate the design with another standout Texas visual: burger chain Whataburger’s spicy ketchup label.
So which logos are more likely to stand out? “The more urban, the higher the office, and the more money that went into the campaign, the more the branding decisions are strategic,” says Wiesner. The CAPD team is working to make logos sortable by the amount of money that went toward each campaign. “I think that that will be valuable because it will sort out who likely had a staff to consider the implications of their logo design. When we’re looking at that, we can start to read more into intentions. Right now, I’m deliberately hesitant to do that across the board.”
In producing this archive, the team at CAPD had two goals: provide an interesting and new way to look at what’s happening in an election season, and give people a data set on which to do their own analysis. “There’s a lot more to dig into here than just the basics of sort by color or political affiliation—that we’ve been able to do ourselves so far,” says Wiesner. That’s your cue to get going and start making some conclusions of your own.