Representative democracy hinges on a key premise: individuals elect leaders that will accurately represent their interests when governing. But how can citizens tell who best aligns with their vision for a model future, or who will fight for the specific policies and outcomes that they need in their daily lives? Increasingly, candidates for political office campaign provide information that they hope will convince citizens that their platforms are aligned with citizens’ preferences.
To understand what sorts of material campaigns use to try to persuade, we have to first think about how people actually evaluate political candidates. The common assumption is that people look carefully at candidates’ positions on issues and reflect on their own preferences and vote for the candidate who aligns most closely with those preferences. Decades of research in political psychology, however, suggest we’re actually pretty bad at this—and campaign memorabilia like that in this exhibit reflects this reality. While some pieces attempt to lay out a clear list of the candidate’s policy proposals and stances on major issues, many are designed to tap into our emotions and our identities, to make us enthusiastic about a candidate that we see as representative of our groups.
Using items housed in the Special Collections at Southwestern University, students in the Spring 2020 political science course “Candidates, Campaigns, and Citizens” created this exhibit. Students analyzed the effectiveness of various mobilization strategies, from campaign mailers to election day festivals, to assess the likely impact of their piece of campaign memorabilia and explored the persuasive effects of issue and identity appeals through the lens of their chosen items.
As you browse this exhibit, you’ll see examples of campaign memorabilia designed to appeal to specific groups of voters, from brochures tailored to the Hispanic community in Texas to cookbooks and dresses designed for women voters and stickers appealing to Game of Thrones fans. Voters display their chosen memorabilia as a signal of their own values, identity, and political knowledge; the “Nasty Women Against Trump” button, for example, allows its wearer to signify their vote choice, a sense of female solidarity, and the knowledge that Trump called Clinton a nasty woman on the debate stage. Click the exhibit pages to learn more about how campaigns attempt to persuade and mobilize voters, and reflect on how these strategies continue to play out as we move through yet another election season.
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