Behind the Scenes at the Political Machines symposium

On Nov 2 & 3, 2012 the Lemelson Center hosted Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Electionsthe latest edition of our annual symposium series, New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation. By all accounts, the weekend was a great success!  If you weren’t able to make it, here’s an inside look at some of the events and talks…

Friday Nov 2 – Final preparations and “The Political Party”

If you had been in the Lemelson Center offices on the afternoon before the symposium, you would have seen a flurry of activity as we made final preparations – setting up banners, printing name tags, confirming the food order, etc. At 3pm, the team assembled in the Warner Bros. Theater for a final tech run-through with Keith Madden, the projectionist, and Robb Rineer, our technician from Meridia, who gave us a preview of our audience response system. When we broke at about 4pm, the team sprung into action – setting up tables, placing banners around the Museum, escorting C-SPAN’s camera crew to the theater, and generally gearing up for the arrival of our guests.

The Political Party, outside "The American Presidency" and "The First Ladies" exhibitions. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

When we welcomed our symposium speakers to “The Political Party,” a kick-off reception held, appropriately, right outside two of the Museum’s most popular exhibitions: The American Presidency and The First Ladies, they found the 3rd floor atrium transformed into an elegant reception with an election motif. One side, lit in blue, featured Chicago-style hot dogs and other treats reminiscent of Barack Obama’s “Windy City.” Across the atrium, lit in red, were shepherd’s pie, New England clam chowder, and Boston cream pie from Mitt Romney’s “Beantown.” Several of our invited speakers—trained as political historians, campaign workers, etc.—took a few moments to enjoy the collections in The American Presidency, before heading down to the theater for the symposium’s opening act.

David Schwartz. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.


Friday Nov 2, 8pm – Ghosts in the Machine, but David Schwartz is a Pro

David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, opened the symposium with his talk on the history of presidential campaign ads. I began to feel slightly ill as the Museum’s Internet connection decided to bonk just as David began clicking on streaming video links from his online exhibition, The Living Room Candidate. But being a consummate pro, David stayed cool and used the temporary glitch to describe the genesis of the site in the late 1990s. In particular, he noted how innovative it was at that time to stream videos back in the days of dial-up connections before (…tongue planted firmly in cheek…) “the blazingly fast speeds of today’s Internet.” That drew lots of laughs and by then, the goblins that temporarily interrupted the Internet connection departed and left David to click freely and finish his wonderful talk. Disaster averted!

Saturday Nov 3, 10:30-5pm – Symposium Saturday

The symposium continued with a full day of panels and talks by our amazing symposium speakers. There’s no way I could capture all of their smart ideas in a short blog post.  However, our intrepid communications team—led by Erin Blasco, Kate Wiley, and Michelle DelCarlo—live-Tweeted the event so you can get a flavor of the proceedings.  Check out http://twitter.com/amhistorymuseum or http://twitter.com/SI_Invention or search for #PoliticalMachines for the full blow-by-blow.

Keynote speaker Darrell West. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite moments from the symposium:

  • Our keynote speaker, Darrell M. West, described the trend in campaign technologies from broadcasting to “nano-casting”…
    • Broadcasting—building ads with broad appeal for the three TV networks
    • Narrow-casting—creating ads for cable TV, tailored to a particular regional service area or a particular channel’s viewership, e.g. young men watching ESPN
    • Micro-casting—using targeted emails with links to YouTube ads to reach VERY specific groups, e.g. conservative blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio, that oppose  gay marriage
    • Nano-casting—using mobile phones, geo-location services, and consumer information to send text messages or emails with precise, individually-tailored messages—e.g. “Dear Sally, please vote today, your polling place is 123 Elm Street.”
  • Jon Grinspan explained the innovative role of alcohol in elections during the mid-1800s. Westward expansion into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio meant more access to grains like wheat and corn, which created bumper crops of hard liquors like bourbon. Saloons were among the biggest buildings in frontier towns, so they served as party headquarters and polling places. Party operatives traded booze for votes—but not too much, otherwise, passed-out voters would never make it to the polls!
  • Zephyr Teachout explained how the emergence of the Internet challenged the traditional power structure of campaigns, previously ruled by a triumvirate of political, finance, and communications directors. Eventually campaigns made room for a fourth director—the Director of Internet Organizing, a role she pioneered in Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign—and we’ve never looked back.

Vanderbilt’s Sarah Igo, who has studied the history of George Gallup and the birth of modern opinion research, chats with Gallup’s modern-day counterpart, Jon Cohen, the chief pollster at The Washington Post. Courtesy of Eric Hintz.

  • Sarah Igo explained that we used to call public opinion researchers “pollers.” However, sometime during the 1940s, a newspaper columnist, skeptical of their methodology, called them the “pollsters” because it sounded like “hucksters.” The name stuck…
  • Jon Cohen, polling director at The Washington Post, said that there is still skepticism about the methods of today’s pollsters, but that sampling—and the bias that inevitably creeps in—is unavoidable. To illustrate the point he said: “Next time you go to the doctor and they ask for a blood sample, tell them ‘No—take the whole thing!’”
  • Thad E. Hall wondered aloud why we could buy airline tickets and do our banking via the Internet, but we have yet to implement Internet voting. The key difference is that, with online purchases, the identity of the purchaser is tied to the transaction. However, with voting, the trick is to maintain security while separating the identity of the voter from his or her vote—and we are still figuring out that trick.
  • David Becker described many of the problems with our present system of election administration, but quickly brought things back to proper perspective. He doubted whether any corporation (or nation besides the United States) could get nearly 117 million people to all do the same thing (in this case, vote) on one given day, and do it in an orderly fashion absent any riots or violence. There are always a few problems, but they are minor relative to the overall achievement that is Election Day. His final charge was classic: “On Tuesday, go out and hug your local election worker!”

Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Meanwhile, out in the Lefrak Lobby, visitors were treated to an up-close and personal view of dozens of historical campaign buttons, posters, and fliers from our museum collections dating as far back as the 1860s. It was fun to see an Abraham Lincoln-Andrew Johnson ticket from 1864 on the table next to a Spanish-language poster supporting JFK and LBJ from 1960! Plus, over the lunch break, our visitors got an up-close and personal audience with speakers Sarah Igo, Thad Hall, and Zephyr Teachout, who graciously signed copies of their books.

Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Monday Nov 5, 9am – Reflections and Thank You Notes

After a well-earned day of rest on Sunday, everyone came back to work on Monday and chatted around the water cooler about the symposium. We all agreed that we’d had some very high-caliber speakers, all of whom were smart, funny, and engaging in describing the role of “political machinery” in the realms of Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting.  Thanks again to our tremendous speakers!

Wednesday Nov 7 – The Day After the Election

On November 7, the day after Obama’s re-election to a second term, some prognosticators had already begun speculating about who would run for President in 2016. No rest for the election-weary, I guess. Similarly, my teammate Michelle DelCarlo innocently asked me—“So what do you think will be the theme for next year’s symposium?” COME ON ALREADY!! Let’s enjoy this one for a few weeks, before we start speculating about 2013.

We’ll start brainstorming for our 2013 symposium in the New Year—maybe exploring Civil War military technologies, or sports inventions, from safer football helmets to instant replay. Then again, in the tradition of participatory democracy—what do YOU think would make a compelling theme for the 2013 symposium?

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