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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Wisconsin candidates' campaign graphics provide clues to political strategy
Sign language

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Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, flocks of political yard signs have once again descended upon the grasslands of Dane County. With five elections happening this year, the sheer number of placards dotting our landscape demands a review.

A candidate's advertising used to be relegated to a cigar-stained lapel. These days, campaigns must generate votes by creating a national brand, by Jumbotron if necessary. There's no better example than what the typeface Gotham did for President Obama's 2008 campaign. The iconic font projected an image of the future while referencing the humanist overtones of New Deal WPA posters. The look was borrowed liberally, and even conservative Mark Neumann's gubernatorial campaign ripped off Obama's sunrise "o," with less success. If only it were that simple - that the flair of a serif or the wink of an "i" could have the power to bring down dynasties.

Let's take a look at what Madison's best-dressed lawns are wearing this fall, as well as recent political signage in Wisconsin campaigns.

Tammy's retro makeover

Ever since her first run for Congress in 1998, Tammy Baldwin has had the classiest yard sign on the block. With a big, freewheeling brush script derived from her signature and an arresting red-black-white palette, her campaign logo has sported the look of a fashion-magazine cover.

But the logo for Baldwin's 2012 Senate campaign has a distinctly rural feel, as if it were meant to dress up a silo. It harks back to the shield-like insignias of farmers' cooperatives and the USDA stamps of the 1930s.

Was this Dairyland aesthetic deliberate outreach to rural voters? Milwaukee designer Kevin Walzak says no. Placing Baldwin's name in an arc or an enclosure makes "a bolder statement that stands apart from what others are doing, a theme that connects with everyone in the state," he says.

Tommy: The Yard Sign

After being governor for a dozen years, Tommy Thompson kept things on a first-name basis with his 1998 campaign's bold TOMMY logo. Fourteen years later his Senate campaign has adopted the clever TOM MY SENATOR visual pun. At this rate, a future campaign might be reduced to a monogrammed "t."

Mix and rematch

In a break from conservative convention, Republican Scott Walker's original campaign sign dispensed with the usual classical capitals and went edge-to-edge with the futuristic Handel Gothic font, which first grabbed attention in 1977 as the typeface for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. During the recall, Walker's campaign retained the look but added the bold "I Stand Behind" declaration.

Democrat Tom Barrett's yard sign, like much of his recall-election campaign, was left over from his 2010 run for governor. While keeping the same sign no doubt saved him some cash, the design itself did him no favors. The visual elements are huddled on top of each other, drowning in a vast sea of white space.

Not-so-primary colors

When the owner of a sign shop runs for public office, what does his sign look like? After a lifetime of printing campaign materials, Democratic congressional candidate Mark Pocan says, "Red, white and blue I just can't do."

Considering that his first campaign's colors were purple and black, Pocan's current sign strikes another blow against tradition with a logo that's sea-foam green and navy blue. He also risks understatement with his choice of only lowercase characters, an unconventional move for any candidate (unless you're e. e. cummings).

By running a union shop, Pocan has amassed many Democratic customers, though he says "we usually get one Republican each cycle." After 24 years in business, has he noticed any trends peculiar to local signage? "Nobody uses photos in Wisconsin," he notes. Why not? "Because it's stupid."

Other recent candidates have also eschewed the red, white and blue, with varying success. Ron Johnson used the Packers' hunter green, but only Mark Neumann has tried to ride green-and-gold coattails shamelessly.

Fisticuffs

Of the many symbols used to protest Gov. Walker's controversial Act 10 (palm trees, heart balloons, the number 14), none was more ubiquitous than the iconic Blue Fist Appleton's Carrie Worthen created for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. The symbol has been rendered on boxcars as well as bike frames, and has been spotted at protests from Cairo to Toronto. It also excelled at raising the hackles of talk-radio hosts Vicki McKenna locally and Glenn Beck nationally. (Socialism!)

When speaking to Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, Worthen explained that "the Wisconsin AFL-CIO staff created an image of a white fist in the shape of the state on a map of the Midwest. I was 'The Clarifier.' I prettied up and simplified the idea."

Predating Worthen's image by several weeks is the Solidarity Fist crafted by Janesville blogger Lou Kaye. This online avatar looked like, well, a white fist in the shape of the state on a map of the Midwest. It began popping up on social media during the first week of protests. An admitted non-artist, Kaye originally scrawled his design in response to Sarah Palin's infamous "crosshairs map" targeting Democratic candidates.

Kaye says that "when my friends saw what the AFL-CIO did, they told me, 'Sue 'em!'" But he decided against it. "We're on the same side," he says.

It's unlikely he would have had much luck. The raised-fist image is said to be as old as Ishtar. In 1917 the Industrial Workers of the World created a political version, and in 1948 a Mexican print shop simplified it, thereby increasing its impact.

By the 1960s the raised-fist symbol had been embraced by the New Left. It made a live appearance at the 1968 Olympics and was adopted by nearly every group seeking empowerment, from the Black Panther Party to Schoolhouse Rock. (Right on!)

Ultimately, did the fist symbol's militancy drive away as many people as it inspired? There may be no way of telling, but Worthen, now a designer in California, defends its use. "Maybe people who find the Wisconsin Blue Fist too aggressive do not understand the gravity of the situation at hand," she says. "Do you think Scott Walker was sitting around worrying about seeming too aggressive when he stripped hundreds of thousands of workers of their collective bargaining rights with a stroke of a pen? No."

Getting the brand back together

While his walrus mustache has remained intact all these years, Mayor Paul Soglin's serial campaign logos have mirrored the style of the time. Though his most recent logo was done in a modern sans serif font, his past logos look like decals from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, from either the hard-nosed 1980s or the grungy 1990s.

Soglin even borrowed from underground comix in 1973, during his first campaign for mayor. His unlicensed use of R. Crumb's Mr. Natural seems prescient, as nearly 40 years later Hizzoner has acquired a reputation as an old hippie who attracts liberals and occasionally tells them to go to hell.

Character issues

What's in a monogram? There are a lot more possibilities when your name begins with the letter "o," as opposed to, say, "r." Obama's campaign has stuck with a target-like sunset behind fruited plains, with not a right angle in sight.

It's not immediately clear if the Mitt Romney campaign's initial monogram contains the letter r. Red, white and blue bunting is a classic motif, but this lazy swath looks like it was torn from the rafters of the Tampa convention center.

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