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What campaign design reveals about the race to 2020

With the exception of Barack Obama, candidates have rarely invested in original design. A group that tracks the way politicians market themselves shows that is changing.

What campaign design reveals about the race to 2020
[Illustration: FC]

American politicians love soaring eagles. The same goes for eternal flames, fluttering flags, and spangles of stars. They also love a good speech bubble–especially if it looks kind of like an iMessage. They adore Futura.

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Those are some of the findings of the Center for American Politics and Design, a fledgling group of designers interested in campaign marketing and design. The group collects thousands of logos, color schemes, and marketing campaigns, adding them to a growing archive of imagery that anyone can download and use as they see fit. Founder Susan Merriam plans to build tools for fledgling candidates that may not have a budget for design–and connect young candidates to designers who want to help.

[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]
Campaign design tends to serve as an engine for hot takes in the political media, driven as much by the 24-hour-a-day news cycle of network TV as the huge sums of money most politicians spend on marketing. Criticisms tend to fall along pretty predictable political lines; a candidate’s taste becomes a stand-in for their party alignment. (Surprise! When candidates don’t run on policies, they end up being judged on aesthetics.)

A scroll through the CAPD archives. [Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]

But it also offers a vantage on how American politics has evolved. Some of the CAPD’s new research, analyzing roughly 900 campaigns from 2018 and 2019, reveals both political parties’ search for identity and ideological direction. Look at the hundreds of campaigns run over the past year, and you’ll see candidates using design to market themselves as anti-establishment outsiders or friendly, normal, would-be neighbors. You’ll also see evidence of the influx of corporate money, as well as candidates signaling their traditionalist values or “likability,” a quality so often described as lacking in women candidates.

“At least at the presidential level, there’s a lot more focus on [design] in terms of differentiating yourself,” Merriam says, as opposed to the generic branding of the 1990s. “Maybe that’s a symbol of the polarization that we’re in as well.”

In 2018, women candidates were four times as likely to emphasize their first names than male candidates. [Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]

That doesn’t mean that every politician is investing in designers, necessarily. After Barack Obama’s successful and well-designed campaigns, many subsequent candidates have simply tried to copy Obama’s iconography, using the same fonts and cribbing other aspects of the former president’s campaigns. Even Mike Huckabee, a politician who once said that Obama’s “new domestic terrorism plan probably requires Americans to memorize Koran verses,” debuted an Obama-esque logo for his ill-fated 2016 campaign. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful campaign design has already become a touchstone like Obama’s did–and may end up being widely mimicked, too.

Other trends are harder to pin on one source: Merriam says that Bernie Sanders’s 2016 logo fueled an influx of campaigns focused around first names, which could also be related to many candidates wanting to seem similarly friendly or relatable. Gender also seems to be a factor here: In 2018, Democrat women were more than four times as likely to emphasize their first names than men.

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[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]

Unsurprisingly, many Republican campaigns are trying to broadcast traditionalism: They’re three times as likely as Democrats to use red over any color, and Republican men are almost seven times more likely to emphasize their last names than Democratic women candidates–one notable exception being the failed campaign of Jeb! Bush (which might explain why so few of his peers have followed his lead).

The CAPD also analyzes design in terms of FEC candidate fundraising data, as well as by each district’s gross domestic product. In high-GDP areas, candidates tend to favor design that Merriam compares to tech company branding; in lower-GDP areas, politicians choose logos that are more akin to local businesses.

Either way, campaigns look more and more like businesses–hinting at the ever-narrowing difference between corporations and politics in American life.

The lowest (left) and highest (right) fundraisers, according to FEC data. [Images: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]
The CAPD plans to continue publishing reports on the way politicians present themselves to the public–and do more research with campaign operatives about how they think about the design process. Eventually, Merriam hopes they’ll evolve into a resource for small candidates looking for help. She points to the importance of state legislature races, and envisions publishing a tool kit for campaign design that could help candidates who don’t have the backing of the Democratic or Republican party establishment–a “tool for everybody,” regardless of how much funding they have.

[Image: courtesy Center for American Politics and Design]
Merriam is watching the fledgling 2020 campaigns for president closely. She describes Kamala Harris’s campaign design as strong–last week the former California attorney general unveiled a logo based on Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign, connecting Harris to Chisholm’s history as the first black woman to run for president. As to the mint greens, pinks, and yellows of other 2020 hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand? They’re another example of Democratic candidates hoping to present themselves as counter to conventional party wisdom.

“If you look at presidential logos from 20 years ago, they all look very similar; many of the candidates tended to be more middle-of-the-road,” she says. Even more centrist candidates are trying to present themselves as counter to party establishment. “I think there’s a lot of sentiment right now to sort of confront the status quo” both on the left and right, she adds. Hopefully that sentiment will go further than appearances.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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