Political campaigns

Political campaign exhibit at Old Capitol is worth your time

Have you ever seen the Firestone airship?

No, not the Goodyear airship. Anyone who’s been to a big football game knows this heavyweight behemoth.

The Firestone Blimp is a campaign gadget, a small plastic thank you note given to major political supporters by former Florida lawmaker George Firestone during his successful 1978 run for Secretary of State. It is displayed at the entrance to an exhibition entitled “Vote for me! Historic Florida Campaign” at the historic Capitol, opening Thursday and continuing through Election Day, Nov. 8.

The main feature is the bumper stickers – dozens of them, all from previous campaigns. There is no partisan patronage, no current candidates or pending ballot initiatives. Just lots of memories, names and faces of those who were once powerful.

It is said that history is written by the victors, and that is also true of politics. Much of the campaign memorabilia in shop windows and on the walls of the rooms where they once worked bears names like Graham, Askew and Nelson. The finalists, not so much.

“We have a lot of things from the winners,” Rachel Basan Porter, the museum’s director of research and programming, told me during a visit this week. “It’s harder to find things for those who haven’t won.”

Campaign graphics, especially bumper stickers, are tough. They should be large enough to read at a glance, and any message should be brief, even concise, like “No new taxes” or “A proven fighter.” The colors and typeface should be bold enough to stick in the memory, because name identity is all about signage, lapel buttons, and bumper strips.

Really, why do we choose Jif or Peter Pan over generic peanut butter? We believe that the name we know must be better than the one we have never heard of.

The same goes for elected officials. If Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump weren’t already famous, would they have burst onto the political scene with such a bang? Candidates without familiar names need branding.

Firestone put another clever twist on it by mixing its name with that of this other tire company – a bumper strip that read, “It’s a good year for Firestone.” (Happy New Year? Firestone? Got it?)

Like Firestone mixing words to plant his name in voters’ minds, some alumni have found ways to make themselves memorable. Governor Sidney Catts, elected in 1916, had a wordy poster with a large drawing of a cat asking, “If Texas had a Hogg for governor, why can’t Florida have a Catt for governor?” Few Floridians remember Catts — let alone Jim Hogg, who ruled Texas from 1891 to 1895 — but it was working 106 years ago.

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Nostalgia is not what it used to be. Like the news itself (publicity events that campaign consultants call “earned media”), name identity is shifting more towards online messaging. They still advertise on TV, in print, and via mass mailings, but for several cycles now, every serious candidate has had a social media consultant — or team — updating the posts. and responding quickly to anything an opponent does.

At least the online items are easier to maintain. Rather than squinting at yellowed posters or faded pins, our grandchildren will click on the political forget-me-nots of today’s activists.

For voters and political junkies of a certain age, the new exhibition at the Old Capitol is part history lesson, part quiz contest, part civic refresher. Amid the campaign bric-a-brac, museum staff released lively and informative instructions on how elections work. Visitors can read what it takes to qualify for a race, how petition initiatives can place issues on the ballot, and lots of history.

“We want to encourage people to get involved in the process, to see the importance of it,” said museum director Tiffany Baker.

There is a section devoted to Florida’s dirtiest campaign, the 1950 Democratic primary race between Claude Pepper and George Smathers. Pepper, a New Dealer who had been in the U.S. Senate since the lows of the Depression, was beaten by the then-Rep. Smathers in a contest that could have made some of today’s fierce campaigns look like a beanbag.

Anecdotes abound. Who was Tom Gallagher’s running mate in 1986? How about Tom Adams’ 1974 ticket companion? Which unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate did Tom Gustafson run with in 1990?

And, as Baker thought, why are so many applicants from Florida called Tom?

Bill Cotterell is a retired journalist from the Democratic capital of Tallahassee who writes a column twice a week. He can be contacted at bcotterell@tallahassee.com

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