Yes we can! The US election posters that won voters' hearts

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Nothing embodies the bitter rivalry of the US elections better than the campaign poster. From the unforgettable to the ridiculous, Rupert Cornwell weighs up two centuries of winning (and losing) words.

What is your enduring memory of Barack Obama's presidential campaign of 2008? Maybe that ever-present chant of "Yes We Can"? Or perhaps what really stand out are the commanding debate performances against his Republican opponent John McCain, crucial in dispelling fears that an untested young senator from Illinois wasn't experienced enough for the job. Or it might be those thrilling public rallies, above all the bliss of victory night in Chicago's Grant Park when, for Democrats, it seemed as if the world was being reborn.

But for many Americans, it may well be a poster, based on a news agency photo portrait of the candidate and conceived by the street artist Shepard Fairey. The stencil technique and the bold, superimposed colours remind one of Andy Warhol. It projects firmness and determination, as well as the hipness that inspired so many young people to vote for Obama.

Most important, simultaneously and miraculously, Fairey manages to both disguise and enhance his subject's most distinctive quality, so loaded with history: his blackness. Beneath is a single word, 'Hope'. Today, some of those Americans are doubtless looking at Fairey's poster and feeling disappointed at how those expectations have not been quite matched by achievements. But such, inevitably, are democratic politics everywhere. And the disappointment itself is a tribute to the impact of Shepard's poster, described by some as the greatest in the entire history of American presidential politics. Praise indeed.

Political posters are neither an American invention nor an American monopoly. By the 18th century, the country's colonial master Britain had already developed a rich tradition of political pamphlets and scurrilous cartoons of the leading figures of the day. Later, the Soviet Union would develop them into an art form – at the service, of course, not of political competition but as a one-party system's propaganda tool, exhorting citizens to vigilance against the state's enemies.

Nowhere, though, have posters taken root as much as in the US. In the bloated extravaganza of a presidential election, the most expensive and protracted democratic exercise on earth, they have always been part of the ritual, as embedded in the process as party f primaries, campaign debates and the choreographed hoopla of the nominating conventions. For proof, you need look no further than the collection of posters, Two Centuries of Incredible Election Art, just published here by the Library of Congress.

The selection ends with Shepard's rendering of Obama. It begins with the election of 1828, pitting Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, against the incumbent John Quincy Adams, the National Republican candidate. That election is held by many historians to mark the birth of the modern two-party system. What is astonishing is, advances in technology aside, how little has changed over the years.

One constant is mudslinging. In the internet age, the methods of propagation may be different: no one these days would use a campaign poster to promote the 'birther' nonsense against Obama or to suggest that he is a closet Muslim. But, thanks to the internet, these theories still have wide currency. In Jackson's day, however, the accusations were explicit, laid out with a viciousness even British pamphleteers might have been pressed to match – as in the celebrated 'Coffin Handbill' describing in lurid detail how Jackson committed war atrocities, allegedly having six of his men unjustly executed for desertion during the war of 1812 against the British, when his military prowess made him a national name.

Jackson, however, was shrewd enough to grasp another eternal verity of American presidential politics – that candidates who present themselves as men of the people who know how to keep the people safe, rarely lose. That formula worked in 1828 and again four years later – despite a poster from supporters of his opponent Henry Clay, depicting Jackson in a monarch's robes, The King upon the Throne, the People in the Dust. But voters in the young republic that had just thrown off the royal yoke failed to respond. As with Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton in more recent times, American voters had decided that while Jackson wasn't perfect, he was good enough, and awarded him a second term.

Naturally, the mudslinging went on. The 1856 election, fought amid deepening national tensions overf slavery, was won by the Democrat James Buchanan. The bad feelings were evident in the campaign literature. 'Ten Cent Jimmy', Buchanan's enemies called him in one sneering poster, vowing to 'Hit him on the head with a chunk of cold lead/and land him on tudder side of Jordan'.

In fact, the criticism was probably spot on: in historians' rankings of the 44 presidents, Buchanan usually comes last. But the nature of presidential posters was changing. The mudslinging ('negative advertising' or 'opposition research' as it's referred to today) was left to others, and posters concentrated on the positive.

In doing so, they respected a deep truth about US presidential elections. These contests are not about specific policies. They're about people – which candidate is more trustworthy, more believable and, at bottom, more likeable. Hence the validity of today's litmus test, 'Which of them would you most like to have a beer with?'. And Americans are by nature optimists. Hence the poster's importance in promoting a broadbrush vision of a better future. And simplicity gradually became a cardinal virtue. The less cluttered the canvas, the easier for an ordinary citizen to paint his own dreams upon it. Therein, of course, lies the genius of the 2008 Obama poster.

But the trend was visible well before the end of the 19th century. In 1872, the great Union general Ulysses Grant reprised Jackson's theme of soldier-cum-everyman, forming with running mate Henry Wilson a Republican ticket under a so-called 'Working-man's Banner', as the country continued to rebuild after the Civil War. In 1880, another Republican, James Garfield, employed a variation on the same theme, presenting himself as a 'Farmer Garfield' wielding a scythe marked 'Honesty, Ability and Patriotism', who was 'Cutting a Swath to the White House'. He won the White House.

And thus we enter the first golden age of the political poster, when the genre not only captured the spirit of the moment, but even foretold the future. In 1896, Republican William McKinley faced the Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The country was struggling to escape deepf recession and the election was a battle not only between parties but monetary theories too. McKinley favoured the gold standard and "sound money", but his opponent urged a silver standard as well: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns," Bryan said in his immortal address to that summer's Democratic convention in Chicago, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold".

But McKinley, the champion of economic orthodoxy and Eastern big business, prevailed. His appeal was summed up by the wonderful poster showing him standing confident atop a golden dollar, supported by businessmen and workers, servants, soldiers and sailors – all exuding well-being. Just seven words accompanied this picture: 'Prosperity at home, Prestige Abroad, Commerce, Civilisation'. Such was then the American dream – could there be a more accurate prefiguring of the 20th century, the 'American Century' about to begin?

McKinley was assassinated in 1901, a few months after he had secured a second term. But his victory ushered in three decades of Republican dominance, lasting until the arrival of Franklin Roosevelt. As for Bryan, he achieved the distinction of becoming only the second man in US history to lose three presidential elections.

The third of those defeats was inflicted in 1908 by William Howard Taft, another Republican who, among other things, was the fattest man ever to occupy the presidency, a fact in which his posters positively revelled. In one, a label is affixed to his ample chest, stating simply 'Good Times'. Another, with the one word 'Bill' (an early example of the use of a single word to promote a candidate) must be the most effective use of a double chin in the entire history of political advertising.

The sole Democratic winner in the early 20th century was the idealistic and scholarly Woodrow Wilson, and that only came about courtesy of an opposition divided in 1912 between Taft and Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Republicans. But the Roaring Twenties reverted to type, as three undistinguished Republicans, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, occupied the White House.

By 1932, however, as the Great Depression deepened, it was a Democrat, FDR, who embodied the change a stricken country yearned for. Roosevelt was elected an unprecedented (now constitutionally impossible) four straight times. The last was against Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, whom Roosevelt dismissed as "the little man on the wedding cake".

That 1944 election is a little-known gem, in which the sickly Roosevelt's ultimately comfortable victory, in reality was in doubt until late in the campaign. Not least, it is notable for one of the smartest campaign slogans ever: 'Well, Dewey or Don't We?'. Americans turned down that existentialist invitation – as they would four years later when Dewey lost to Harry Truman in the 20th century's biggest presidential upset. In 1948, the most memorable slogan was provided not by a poster but by the premature headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune on election night: 'Dewey Defeats Truman'.

The year 1952 reinforced that other truism of American presidential posters: don't go negative. Adlai Stevenson, however, did so, likening his Republican opponent Dwight Eisenhower to Hoover, and claiming that a general in the White House was a recipe for war: 'WE DON'T WANT WAR as the answer to our problems, we want a president who thinks PEACE'.

The slogan couldn't have been more wrong. Eisenhower understood the horror of wars better than anyone, and kept America out of them. Six months into his term he ended the fighting in Korea, and thereafter not a single US soldier died in combat on his watch. As always, the nice-guy war hero was hard to beat. The warnings of the cerebral Stevenson didn't have a prayer against the pithy optimism of 'I Like Ike'.

And so to another golden age of the poster, in the 1960s and 1970s, two of the most turbulent decades in US history. Americans avoided the blandishment of Goldwater, 'In Your Heart, You Know He's Right'. But in 1968, Nixon was The One; he was again four years later. Both times, his posters achieved the impossible, of making the scowling, paranoid architect of Watergate look like, well, just another nice guy.

But consider two who fell by the wayside in 1968. The first is Nelson Rockefeller. Look at him as he tried unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination. 'Rocky Can Win' conveys an optimism that sums up what presidential campaigns are about. Then there was another handsome businessman and governor called George Romney, the father of Mitt. Like his son now, George was a rather flat campaigner. But he and Rockefeller are reminders of the all-but-extinct strand of moderate Republicanism, whose demise has reduced US politics to near-dysfunction.

The post-Watergate election of 1976 was another close battle, between the somewhat saintly Jimmy Carter and the worthy journeyman Gerald Ford. Both wrapped themselves in the mantle of everyman, while Ford even embraced Fonzie, the character in the TV show Happy Days. The 'Fordzie' poster – 'Happy Days are here again' – worked. But it didn't see him to victory.

And so to Ronald Reagan, the uncontested master of folksy, platitudinous optimism. The earnest Carter couldn't crack him in 1980, nor could Walter Mondale four years later, even with the novelty of Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket, the first woman ever to run for national office. Mondale's poster, depicting Ferraro in the foreground as a modern Lady Liberty, is among the most striking in the Library of Congress collection. But it ignores a basic truth. Most of the excitement over a candidate's choice of running mate is synthetic. Come election day, Americans are voting for president, not vice-president.

By the early Nineties, the political poster seemed to have exhausted its usefulness. Bill Clinton made little contribution to the art, nor did his vanquished opponents, George HW Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. In 2000, the most memorable slogan came not from a campaign poster, but from a spoof dreamt up by a Kentucky printing company owner named John Kanis, as the Florida recount battle dragged on between George W Bush and Al Gore. Kanis had his stroke of genius with 'Sore Loserman', a riff on the Democratic poster advertising Gore/Lieberman. To this day, it sells.

But the nature of political campaigns was changing, with the advent of cable and the 24/7 news cycle, and then of the internet and social media, now mined for all their worth by candidates. In this proliferation of instant news, where 'pre-buttals' pre-empted rebuttals, and one gaffe picked up by a stray microphone could doom a campaign, what room was there for the old-fashioned, slow-motion poster?

A good deal, it proved. First there was 'Bush Country', rendering the US as a political map, county by county. If you had doubts about its fundamentally conservative nature, they would be banished by the vast expanse of Republican red, with only the coasts and a few pockets of the Midwest coloured Democratic blue.

But the best Bush campaign poster was 'W 2004'. If proof was needed that the best political slogans are short, this was it: not even a single word, just a single letter. 'W' is brilliantly versatile. It stands for 'win', it stands for 'women' (always a vital target group) and of course for 'Dubya'. Later it would provide the title of Oliver Stone's 2008 movie about the 43rd president.

The rough-hewn nickname conveyed the candidate's chosen image of a no-nonsense man of the people, the guy you'd like to have a beer with (even though the once-alcoholic Bush was now teetotal) – so different from his effete, chablis-sipping, windsurfing Democratic opponent John Kerry. Thus could his campaign leave the dirty stuff (the shameful impugning of Kerry's record as a Vietnam war hero by the so-called 'Swiftboat Veterans for Truth') to a group that Bush could claim was acting entirely independently. Kerry's slogan was the poetically resonant 'Let America Be America Again'. But it was no match for 'W'.

Bush's win also showed how far the party had moved to the right. It no longer had room for the likes of Romney, Rockefeller, or even Nixon. Reagan, official patron saint of modern Republicanism, himself counts as a moderate when compared to the uncompromising hardliners who dominate today. The one tantalising exception, of course, is Mitt Romney. But to see what sort of president he would be, he has to win. And that means beating Obama. And Obama, as we know, can turn a mean campaign poster.

'Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art' is published by Quirk Books, £27.50

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