Jews and Campaign Buttons: A Time-Honored Tradition
Strangers don’t often interact on New York’s streets. Yet, this election season, I am often stopped and asked about my political lapel button. (As a collector of this Jewish ephemera since the 1960s, I have approximately 3,000 unique items dating to the early 1900s.)
Generally, I have found that while college students and 30-somethings wear lapel buttons for many causes year-round, older adults tend to do so only in election seasons. It is not surprising, then, that political parties and commercial button makers design buttons to attract the votes of American Jews.
The first confirmed presidential campaign to aim buttons at Jews was in 1900 when William Jennings Bryan ran against William McKinley. The Bryan campaign released a button in Yiddish. Only two copies are known to exist now.
Forty years passed before Jewish campaign buttons reappeared. In 1940, Willkie’s Republican supporters distributed one with his name in Hebraized letters. So many were made that they still sell inexpensively on eBay. Surprisingly, no buttons appeared that year in support of Roosevelt.
Supporters of Republican candidates appealed to Jewish voters by producing buttons with Jewish texts and themes, including Eisenhower buttons in Yiddish and Hebrew. Others in support of Nixon appeared in 1968 and 1972.
Throughout the 1960s commercial, novelty, and advocacy as well as political campaign buttons proliferated, both Jewish and general. In 1968, McGovern’s admirers stressed his support of Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War, though it was probably not an official campaign button.
Although neither appears to be an official button, in the 1976 campaign there was one button supporting Gerald Ford and one supporting Jimmy Carter. Ford’s said, “Jewish Americans for Ford.” Meanwhile someone made a series of buttons in 15 languages stating: “All Good People Need [Jimmy] Carter.” The one labeled “Jewish” by the manufacturer actually was transliterated Yiddish: “Goota Menchen darfen Carter.” In 1980, the Reagan campaign created a button spelling his name in Hebrew.
Oddly, I have never seen a Jewish-oriented button in support of either George H. W. Bush or Michael Dukakis from the 1988 election.
Beginning with the Clinton-Gore elections, the number and diversity of Jewish-themed buttons grew tremendously. Neither the supporters of George H.W. Bush in 1992 nor Bob Dole in 1996 circulated Jewish-oriented buttons to counter Clinton/Gore in either election. The Clinton campaign worked with the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) to capture Jewish votes with a series of 50 buttons stating “Jewish Democrat and Proud,” individualized with the name of each state.
When Vice President Al Gore selected Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, button makers relished the novelty of a Jewish candidate. The campaign produced at least one official Jewish-themed button. In addition, independent button manufacturers generated an unprecedented number of buttons with Jewish slogans. These included “Bentsh with the best…” and “Chutzpah! Gore Lieberman 2000,” as well as “A bagel in every pot.” The Bush-Cheney ticket did not counter with buttons. Yiddish puns and word-play contrasted the two candidates with “Gore vs. Gore-nisht” (Gore vs. Nothing).
The 2004 election saw both the Bush and Kerry campaigns creating Jewish buttons. While some emerged from the official campaign or its surrogates, others were produced outside the campaigns. The Yiddish word-play contrast for this election was “Real Deal [Kerry] vs. Schlemiel [Bush].”
In 2008 Jewish-themed buttons appeared during the primaries for the first time. The Obama and Clinton campaigns released Hebrew buttons. By that time, online stores enabled anyone to print a button and the variety of offerings expanded from tens of buttons to hundreds. Most of the buttons – and certainly the most creative ones – supported Obama. Sarah Silverman organized “the Great Schlep,” and created a button encouraging millennial Jews to fly to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama. The 62nd Latke-Hamantash debate at the University of Chicago pitted “Potatoes for Change” against “Cookies First,” which played on Obama’s slogan: “Change We Can Believe In” and McCain’s “Country First.” This campaign’s Yiddish contrast, again from the NJDC, pitted the “O” [of Obama] and Joe [Biden] against the “Shmoes” [McCain and Palin].
Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was significantly more restrained, releasing only a few Jewish-oriented buttons. The Romney campaign? None. Independent button makers also made fewer that year. Though the Herman Cain button, “Herman Cain is Able,” was perhaps the most creative, the slogan proved untrue and he was unable to win the Republican nomination. That campaign’s Yiddish button from the NJDC contrasted “Barack” and “Schlock” [Romney].
Oddly enough, this year, neither the Trump nor the Clinton campaigns have distributed official Jewish-themed buttons. While the NJDC has created a couple, the Republican Jewish Coalition has not. Nonetheless, numerous independent button makers have distributed as many as 40 different Jewish-themed buttons supporting Clinton or Trump, as well as the many also-rans. One independent producer released a button contrasting Hillary [Mensch] with Trump [Meshuggener]. With only a few weeks until the election, when you pin on your Jewish-themed lapel button, you will know you are participating in a time-honored American-Jewish tradition.