Tennis Shoes (And Other Election Gimmicks)

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GIMMICK: Action Figures of Speech

Of all the unusual aspects of Jesse Ventura's 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, perhaps the most successful was the introduction of an action figure in the former pro wrestler's likeness. Voters got their first look at the doll in a campaign commercial featuring little Jesse battling Evil Special Interest Man.

SUCCESS RATE: High. The ad's message definitely struck a chord and helped propel Ventura to victory on election day. He even managed to sell thousands of the figures in stores, with most of the profits going to charity.

IMITATORS TO THE CROWN: Taking the doll ploy a step further, Kinky Friedman promoted his independent run for governor in Texas by selling an action figure that not only looks like him, but also makes wisecracks about the state's political scene.

GIMMICK: Tennis Shoes

patty-murray.jpgWhen Patty Murray protested education budget cuts in the early 1980s, she didn't expect her actions to lead to a seat in the U.S. Senate. But when a Washington state legislator told her she couldn't make a difference because she was "just a mom in tennis shoes," a formidable political career was born. The former preschool teacher's preferred footwear became her trademark as she rose from positions at her local school board to a seat in the state senate and, eventually, to national office in 1992.

SUCCESS RATE: High. The shoe symbolism was so effective that she decorated her Senate office with sneaks and even started an annual Golden Tennis Shoe Award ceremony, which honors everyday people dedicated to change and progress in their communities.

OTHER POLITICAL PLOYS: With a lead in the polls during her most recent campaign, Murray resisted requests for debates. Instead, she reduced her opponent's tactics to publicity stunts, including staging a mock debate against an empty pair of tennis shoes. She won the election handily and is now Washington state's senior senator.

GIMMICK: Playing the Pet Card

No politician has used the pet prop quite as effectively as Vito Battista. Running for a host of offices in New York from the 1950s to the 1980s, Battista frequently made public appearances with a monkey or an alligator in tow. Aside from the obvious shock value they provided, the poor creatures became Battista's teaching aids, helping him make points about politics and belittle his opponents. He even paraded around Manhattan once with a camel and claimed that just one more tax would break its back.

SUCCESS RATE: Mixed. Although his tactics won him seats on the state assembly and city council, they failed to get him elected mayor any of the six times he ran.

OTHER POLITICAL PLOYS: Battista once appeared at a campaign stop wearing nothing but a barrel.

GIMMICK: Axe-ing For Votes

lester-ax.jpgWhen Georgia governor Lester Maddox defied the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it not only boosted his political career, it earned him an ignominious trademark in the process. When Maddox refused to integrate his Atlanta chicken restaurant after the act passed, his supporters wielded axes to turn away black customers. Using the handles as his campaign symbol, Maddox—pictured here signing one—won the Georgia governorship in 1967, defeating future president Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary.

SUCCESS RATE: Embarrassingly high. Although he lost a subsequent gubernatorial campaign, the popularity of those axe handles endured. He reportedly sold more than 100,000 of them before his death in 2003.

BUT HE PROBABLY WASN'T RE-ELECTED BECAUSE: Once in office, Maddox surprised everyone by passing progressive policies, and hiring and promoting many African-Americans in the state government.

This article was written by Doug Cantor and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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May 12, 2008 - 4:28am
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