Political Machines

Well, it’s mid-September and we’re deep into the 2012 presidential campaign. Active campaigning for the primaries began well over a year ago in the summer of 2011, and as usual the campaign season has been nasty, brutish, and long.  Are you suffering from PCF—Presidential Campaign Fatigue? Fortunately, the Lemelson Center has an antidote.

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center is marking this election year by presenting “Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections,” a symposium that examines the role of invention and technology in electoral politics. Through this lens, we will temporarily shift the focus away from today’s candidates and issues to examine the critical role that “political machinery” such as campaign advertisements, voting machines, and automated opinion polls plays in our democracy. When these technologies work well, they often go unnoticed; when they fail (e.g., hanging chads, “Dewey Beats Truman!”), the consequences can be momentous.

The symposium will be held on November 2–3, 2012, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. All events will be free and open to the public. Our sessions will employ formats typically seen on the campaign trail, including a keynote address, stump speeches, and interactive “town hall” Q&A sessions with our speakers. Audience members will also be able to vote on questions posed during the symposium, using a handheld audience response system or “clicker” provided by our technology partners at Meridia. Watch out, Oprah!

So who’s speaking? “Political Machines” will bring together scholars, government policymakers, campaign strategists, and members of the news media to focus on the historic and contemporary role of technology in various aspects of the electoral process, including Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting. Here’s a sneak peek at our sessions and speakers:

Advertising: Friday, Nov. 2, 8:00–9:30pm

Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to make use of thirty-second television ads, in 1952. Courtesy of www.thelivingroomcandidate.org.

In our Advertising session, David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, will present selections from his online exhibit, The Living Room Candidate, which features over 300 television commercials from every presidential election since 1952. Schwartz will examine the persuasive techniques employed in various historical ads and explore the role of various technological platforms—from biographical films to thirty-second television ads to YouTube—in the evolution of political advertising.

Keynote Address: Saturday, Nov. 3, 10:30–11:30am

After some introductory remarks by my boss, Arthur Molella, our keynote speaker will be Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. In a wide-ranging address, West will set the table for the sessions to follow by describing the historical, contemporary, and future role of technology and innovation in the electoral process and in governance.

Campaigning: Saturday, Nov. 3, 11:30–12:30pm

How have candidates employed innovative campaign techniques and new technologies to deliver their messages, raise money, and garner grassroots support from voters? This session will examine the technology and material culture of campaigning—from buttons and hand-painted convention signs to the internet. One of our featured speakers will be Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham Law School and, formerly, director of internet organizing with “Dean for America.” Teachout pioneered in using the internet and social media platforms during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and coauthored a book about her experience, Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics.

In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used this clever can in his unsuccessful campaign against Lyndon B. Johnson. Courtesy of NMAH.

Polling: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2:00–3:00pm

Pioneering pollster George Gallup.

How have candidates and journalists utilized innovations in polling and statistical analysis to discern the mood of the electorate? In turn, how have citizens come to trust polling data as a reliable source of information? In this session, Vanderbilt professor Sarah Igo, author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, will describe the emergence of modern public opinion research in the 1930s among door-to-door pollsters like George Gallup and Bud Roper. For a more contemporary view, Jon Cohen, director of polling at the Washington Post, will describe what it’s like to use automated phone banks and statistical software packages as a 21st-century pollster.

Voting: Saturday, Nov. 3, 3:30–4:30pm

What are the technologies that underpin the right to vote—our most cherished democratic institution? In this session, we will examine the current state of election administration and explore a multitude of web-based and mobile technologies that may someday transform how we register, receive our ballots, and cast our votes. For example, David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, will describe efforts to improve our DMV databases and other technological processes involved in voter registration and identification. Also, University of Utah professor Thad E. Hall will describe how we may someday cast our ballots, as detailed in his book Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting.

The Votomatic punched-card recorder and its confusing “butterfly ballots” were at the center of the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election. This particular voting machine was collected by curators from the Museum’s Division of Political History. Courtesy of NMAH.

Book Signings; Objects Out of Storage: Saturday, Nov. 3—times TBA

For the 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign, Herman Silvers and Cornel Tanassy wrote the single, “Hello Ronnie, Good-bye Jimmy.” Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center.

In addition, on Saturday, November 3, we will schedule some book signings with our speakers and bring out some classic campaign materials from the Museum’s collections so visitors can get a closer look. For example, we’ve pulled some amazing presidential campaign tunes from the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music.

Here at the Lemelson Center, we believe that invention and innovation are everywhere … even in campaigns and elections. So if you’re tired of the standard campaign coverage and want to look at this election from a different perspective, we hope you’ll join us on November 2 and 3 for an exploration of our “Political Machines.”