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Bumper to Bumper

Bumper stickers are a popular form of political campaigning, because they’re ridiculously cheap for the number of eyes they reach. But do they work?

Yesterday, I saw a bumper sticker slapped across one of those boxes that regulate traffic lights, reading “Lautenberg = Pelosi.” I’m not sure I understand the intent, but from the alarming black-and-yellow I’d guess it’s meant to frighten us into thinking that voting for Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg further empowers Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House; a vote for him is a vote for her.

And I’m thinking… “So what?” Honestly, I’m not all that excited about Lautenberg, who’s just joined the silly, distracting, witch hunt-y attempts to pin BP with freeing terrorist bombers, instead of concentrating on making them take responsibility for bringing oil to American shores. But I think Pelosi is doing pretty well—in many ways better than Obama, since she isn’t trying to comproimise with an uncompromising right wing. Not splendidly well, but pretty well. If Lautenberg equals Pelosi, that makes me more likely to vote for him, although Lautenberg can consider my vote pretty save so long as he’s running against the corporate tool the Republicans keep putting forward.

But then, neither will the bumper sticker win over any fence-sitters. The central message only makes sense I you’ve already decided Pelosi is evil incarnate. That’s not true for most of northern New Jersey, and those relatively few observers would agree are already committed to voting against Lautenberg.

The day before yesterday, I witnessed bumper sticker failure from the opposite end of the political spectrum, this one on an actual bumper. The “Obama-Biden” message was clear enough. Unfortunately, so was the world peace sticker, the vegetarian sticker, the co-exist sticker, the hemp sticker, the “family values”-slamming sticker, the world hunger sticker, and the animal rights sticker. Individually, any of these stickers might have been persuasive; collectively, they do more harm than good. Observers who correctly realize that the proximity of the bumper stickers do not mean Obama is for legalized pot, or outlawing meat, will nevertheless dismiss the endorsement as coming from a kook, and might, somewhere in the back of their minds, begin thinking of Obama as the kook’s candidate.

I suspect bumper stickers don’t do much of anything beyond pronouncing one’s loyalties. This might equate to votes in certain circumstances: when the silent majority—the real silent majority, whatever it may be, and not the very noisy right-wing crazies that claim to be the silent majority—drops out of voting, incorrectly thinking they’re in the minority, outside the mainstream, and powerless to affect elections, then enough bumper stickers might awaken them to the possibility that maybe their opinion should be heard at the polls. Here, bumper stickers don’t change minds, but they win votes by encouraging the discouraged. One Democratic politician struggling against the perception among Idaho liberals, has described how debilitating the inaccurate perception that “right-wing is normal” can be in Idaho, and how empowering the recognition of fellow liberals can be there. I believe her; she’s on the front lines. Presumably, it can work the other direction, too, empowering conservatives in San Francisco, and Republicans in Chicago. Both are ultimately to the good; democracy goes bad when any party goes unchallenged too long. But on balance, I suspect that in our Teabag-saturated nation, a little more open declaration of sympathies will favor the left. Which would also be to the good.

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