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Posters and Election Propaganda

A blog dedicated to the examination of communications in election campaigns, with a focus on posters

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Posted by Steven Seidman at 3:15PM   |  Add a comment
Roosevelt and Johnson Poster (1912)

Next year's election campaign in the United States promises to be a wild one, with an incumbent president fighting increasingly longer odds on his reelection, given the terrible state of the economy. The campaign promises to be one in which both issues and personalities are prominent.

One hundred years earlier, another incumbent U.S. president, William Howard Taft, fought to retain power. And although issues (conservation, tariffs, rights of workers, and governmental reform) were important, the dynamic personality of former president Theodore Roosevelt loomed large (compared to the dull Taft). Taft's campaign was crippled by a split in his Republican Party, with Roosevelt leading the progressive wing of the party (and running under the banner of the Progressive or "Bull Moose" Party) against the conservatives, who supported Taft for the nomination. Robert La Follette, who had defeated Taft in two of the first four primaries, did not support either Taft or Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson led a united Democratic Party to victory. Although Roosevelt’s popular and electoral vote totals surpassed those of Taft, Wilson’s margin over the former president in the popular vote was a substantial 14.5 percent.

In 1912, political campaigns did not use any of the media that emerged later in the twentieth century. Political campaigning did not change fundamentally until the medium of radio altered strategies in the mid-1920s, although campaign speeches had surpassed parades and rallies in importance around the turn of the century. Posters, banners, and billboards, however, continued to be a significant vehicle for political operatives. In 1912, the New Jersey Roosevelt Republican League issued a report on its primary campaign to defeat President Taft for the party’s nomination, stating, “Banners are swung across the streets in every city and town of importance, extolling the candidates. Billboards are plastered with huge posters eulogizing President Taft. Campaign pictures of ‘Teddy’ [Roosevelt] and Taft look out from windows everywhere.” Moreover, many lithographic posters were produced, and these were quite colorful, with backgrounds in bright hues for greater impact.

The election of 1912 was a watershed of sorts for U.S. campaign posters. Gone were the cornucopias and most of the patriotic symbols (such as eagles and flags) that had been used since the 1840s. Instead, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party seized upon the symbol of the Bull Moose—which prompted the party’s nickname—to symbolize the strength of the candidate and his third-party movement. Its symbol was included on some of the posters, cloth banners, buttons, pennants, handkerchiefs, postcards, and other campaign promotions. Since three candidates were essentially “progressive,” personality qualities and symbols were really more important than issues. Slogans were also an essential ingredient: Roosevelt stumped the country calling for a “New Nationalism”; Wilson delivered campaign speeches for a “New Freedom”; and Taft generally stayed in the White House, with his banners proclaiming “Better be safe than sorry.”

A series of photographic portraits of all the major candidates were issued with neither their names nor the names of their parties—another change for printed election propaganda. Other posters did contain some of this information, but one for the Progressive ticket of Roosevelt and Senator Hiram Johnson of California included only the last names of the two candidates, their full-length photographic portraits, and the final lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of the East and West” (See the figure to the right). Roosevelt’s image had come a long way since the last time he ran: in 1904, stuffed “teddy bears” were distributed, which related Roosevelt to both a huggable toy and “family values”; in 1912, he was associated more with the bull moose, with verses from Kipling fortifying the impression of strength. The Taft campaign used the party’s symbol of the elephant—which had been around for several decades, along with the Democratic donkey—on many campaign items, including a poster that displayed portraits of Taft and his running mate, Vice President James Sherman, on the animal’s blanket. Undoubtedly, with Roosevelt’s breakaway movement so powerful, it was important for the Taft strategists to emphasize party symbolism and loyalty.

For more on the election of 1912, see my book, Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History.


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