Election 2012 Narrated in Memes: From Etch-A-Sketch to Binders Full of Women

What was the defining characteristic of this presidential campaign? The political meme, of course.

But before we look at the highlight reel, let’s answer this question: Do memes really matter? Do silly images posted to Reddit affect actual votes in Ohio or Virginia?

Short answer: We don’t know. Slightly longer answer: They must or we’re all trapped a cruel nightmare à la in the Matrix. That said, here are three possible justifications for the effectiveness of web memes:

1) Humor makes hard truths palatable. Memes condense complex political arguments into simple visuals. In effect, they’re political cartoons for the web.

2) A kernel of truth is a requirement for an effective meme. It must accurately reflect something about political reality or it will never catch fire.

3) Images are the currency of the social web. According to Pew, 56% of Americans create or share visual media on the internet.

So with just a few days to go until election day, here are the top 10 memes from the 2012 campaign.

1. Etch A Sketch


This spring, as the GOP primary season came to a close, Mitt Romney’s consigliere, Eric Fehrnstrom, shoved his foot in his mouth, saying:

“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

The comment fed instantly into the narrative of Romney as a slippery flip-flopper who would say anything to get elected.

2. Life of Julia


The Obama campaign’s rollout of a series of infographics depicting the fictional “Julia” receiving government aid from childhood to retirement, while well-executed, provoked a severe backlash from conservatives. In Julia, the Right saw all that was wrong with President Obama’s policies that promised cradle-to-grave coddling from an overbearing nanny-state.

3. You Didn’t Build That


At a July rally in Roanoke, Va., President Obama utter his now infamous remarks about small business, saying:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

To Republicans, Obama’s statements confirmed their already deeply held suspicions that the president was both hostile to and ignorant of the free market.

4. Hey Girl, it’s Paul Ryan


When Romney nominated 42-year-old Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to be his pick for vice president, interest surged in both Ryan’s budget plan and his P90X workout routine.


The narrative of Ryan as budget-crunching hunk was set. And just to remind us what we’re all thinking, “Paul Ryan shirtless” is stilled searched 9 times more frequently than “Paul Ryan budget.”

5. Empty Chair


During the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., the surprise speaker was Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood, who improvised his speech in a bewildering lecture to an empty chair that served as a stand-in for Obama.

While political pundits widely panned the performance, conservatives loved it, hosting a National Empty Chair Day to encourage people to post their own empty chair pics.

6. 47 Percent


Democrats pounced, when Mother Jones released secret footage of Mitt Romney apparently writing off 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes, saying they’ll never support him and his “job is not to worry about those people.”

The statement fed into all the negative stereotypes about Romney as an out-of-touch agent of the super rich.

7. Big Bird


During the first presidential debate, as he discussed cutting government spending, Romney noted that while he loved Big Bird, he would end the subsidy to PBS. The Internet exploded with talk of Romney wanting to fire Big Bird.

A few days later the Obama campaign even released a TV spot, to further exploit the Big Bird gag.

8. Biden Smirk


During the one and only vice presidential debate, many viewers were taken aback by Joe Biden’s maniacal smirk and constant laughter. Biden’s sneers and regular interruptions of Ryan, while cheered by Democrats, were seen as deeply disrespectful by Republicans and Independent voters.


9. Binders full of Women


In the second presidential debate, Romney noted that when he started his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, he had binders full of women to choose from when trying to staff his cabinet with female executives.

With his inelegant attempt to make a point about gender diversity, Romney helped supply Halloween costumes to thousands of American women this year.

10. Horses and Bayonets


In the final presidential debate, Obama in responding to Romney’s comment that our Navy was smaller than at any time since the start of World War I retorted that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets” nowadays as our priorities have changed. The charge was sounded and the cavalry pics started to fly.

So there you have it, the 10 best memes from campaign 2012. In the interest of brevity, some web gems didn’t make the cut, but comment below or tweet at me and share your favorite meme that should have made the list.

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Joe Mansour

Tech and politics flack. My day job is running creative digital campaigns. For fun I watch bad sci-fi and dream of traveling to Mars. Born and raised in Michigan, now living and working in Washington, DC.

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