This year’s presidential election has produced a brand new form of messaging. It isn’t very cutting edge, though; not some kind of recently developed social media application or scary new number crunching technology. No, it’s empty chairs. Really. People (in northeast Ohio at least) have been putting them on their front lawns as a tribute to Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Sometimes the chairs are completely by themselves, unaccompanied by any election signage or word of explanation:
When they began sprouting up a month or so ago I expected them to be a short lived phenomenon. Now, though, it looks like we will be seeing them all the way until election day. There are a lot of them, too. It’s a remarkable phenomenon for several reasons. (Caveat: all that follows is idle speculation based on what I’ve seen while driving around. If you want hard numbers go to Nate Silver’s place.)
First of all, I deliberately avoided describing these “chair people” as Mitt Romney supporters. It has been my general impression that there have been more chairs than Romney signs, so I decided to do a count on my way home from work one day last week. There were eight chairs out and only six signs for Mitt Romney. That tracked with my general impression (there seem to be fewer signs for Obama too; again, not scientific (Nate Silver)).
In other words, these people are more interested in demonstrating their opposition to Obama than their support of Romney. One of the consistent themes in the presidential race has been Romney’s struggle to get his base excited. The chairs indicate the base may well be excited, just not about him. And it is a fairly unusual way to show that enthusiasm. It basically amounts to tribal signalling. No one I know who isn’t already wrapped in whatever right wing cocoon this emerged from knows what it’s about without having someone tell them. Hell, I had to have someone tell me what it meant, and I like to think I keep up pretty well with current events.
If you are going to advertise your beliefs right before an election, presumably part of the reason is to encourage support for those beliefs. Yard signs do that; drive by a “Romney for president” sign and even if you don’t really keep up with politics you know what the message is. But an empty chair could just be a remnant of a yard sale. You don’t put a reference that oblique out there unless it’s meant strictly for those in the know - a secret handshake to fellow travelers. While I understand there being a certain amount of satisfaction in that, wouldn’t you prefer to help out, however infinitesimally, your preferred candidate’s chances on election day?
Then there’s the reporting on it, or lack thereof. These chairs are all over the place, but I have not seen any media coverage of it at all. There may have been a stray item here or there, but for a story that thrives on newness it certainly hasn’t attracted much attention. I’m not claiming conspiracy here; I don’t even know what the purpose of one would be in this case. It is strange, though, to not see reports on something so oddly striking.
The final somewhat off-kilter aspect to the empty chairs is the source of their inspiration. Eastwood’s speech was not very well received. He came across as somewhat confused and disjointed, and the delivery was weak. The message was at odds with reality to anyone who has not spent the last four years marinating in conservative narratives. Say what you want about the president, but it’s hard to imagine him telling political opponents to fuck themselves.
Yet this is the event that many have decided to advertise to the world. Maybe it was received much better by partisans than everyone else, or maybe it has taken on a life of its own in their imaginations. But it seems a really curious symbol to rally around.
In any event the chairs are out there, the Romney For President signs not so much, and who knows what effect (if any) they will have. You can say this much about them, though: In a campaign where seemingly every cliché of horse race politics has been dragged out and beaten senseless, they have escaped saturation coverage. And for better or worse they are unquestionably novel.