This is the first in an occasional series on issues of race, identity and politics ahead of Election Day, including a look at a white Southern Democrat fighting for survival, a civil rights icon registering voters and how parallels to the past haunt the age of Obama.

By Todd Leopold, CNN

(CNN) – The images – on TV, YouTube, our social networks – have become so familiar that we take them for granted.

We’re treated to scenes of Barack Obama with a group of middle Americans at a cozy restaurant table, then with an African-American woman in an office. Or we see clips from a rally, the president surrounded by faces of all ages and hues.

It’s much the same with Mitt Romney: A quartet of white male engineers pore over plans, then an African-American woman talks with a colleague. We see shots of factory workers, then a burst of flags as the candidate heads for the stage. Or we get farms, children and a colorful audience at a speech.

More than 60 years into the Television Age, campaign messages have become a formula: Uplifting ads are full of inspirational music, flapping flags and stolid candidate portrayals; negative ones feature ominous melodies, dramatic black-and-white images and gloomy narrators.

Either way, they’re often shot documentary-style, with shaky cameras and changing focus, so that live rallies look like commercials and commercials look like rallies. Whether live rallies or tightly scripted spots, almost all of it ends up on TV or the Internet, turning the campaign into one giant advertisement.

And in almost every instance, the people look like America – or at least the idealized, multicultural mosaic we imagine the country to be, even including types once considered “edgy.” One Obama ad shows a lightly tattooed woman; one Romney ad, perhaps the candidate’s most pointed, includes a mother with a nose stud. Suffice it to say, these are not the sorts of images that would have passed muster even half a generation ago.

In the 24/7 world of presidential campaigning, all are welcome, all are included.

In some respects, perhaps this is a good thing. It’s the “post-racial America” many hoped for with Obama’s election, in which (to borrow some famous words) people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

We simply assume, says San Francisco State University political scientist Robert Smith, that “the norm – and this is a good norm – is an ethnically and racially diverse and egalitarian society,” and the campaigns must reflect that.

But on another level, these images – the optics – can be seen as a sign of timidity, as both major campaigns use diversity as wallpaper without actually engaging in the issues raised by a multicultural society.

“That sort of bigger vision, and a more adventurous sensibility, is something that’s entirely lacking from this campaign. This is a small – bordering on minuscule – campaign,” says John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University. Both candidates, he says, “are as risk-averse as possible.”

And really, who can blame them? The electorate, we’re constantly reminded, is evenly (and viciously) divided. Obama, already mistrusted by a portion of that electorate, doesn’t want to poke at any beehives; Romney, trying to make a case he can help the sluggish economy, paints himself as a cool, technocratic fix-it man.

A jacket-less Mitt Romney addresses an audience. Every detail of a candidate’s appearance matters, say some political scientists.

Neither candidate has ventured much into the wider America; the vast majority of their campaign stops since July 1 have been in battleground states, especially Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Florida – and even then, the candidates have generally stuck to inoffensive backdrops such as schools, farms, hotel ballrooms and the most generic of all, the airport tarmac. (Check out CNN’s Campaign Tracker)

The days of spending time in the urban blight of the South Bronx (as Ronald Reagan did in a response to a Jimmy Carter appearance) or with South Central L.A. residents after the 1992 riots (Bill Clinton) seem long past. Sure, one of Romney’s ads does feature him in gutted-out Detroit – but he’s seen driving by rotting houses from the remove of his driver’s seat.

Besides, certain optics can only get you in trouble, as both Obama and Romney know. Who can forget Michael Dukakis, trying to demonstrate his defense bona fides, peeking out of a tank like a curious gopher? Or windsurfing John Kerry, whose Vietnam War heroism was turned against him by the Swift Boaters?

Indeed, both candidates have already seen it happen. The Obama campaign made hay with Romney’s “47 percent” video, in which the former Bain Capital chief was recorded in front of wealthy fundraisers referring to Obama supporters as people who “believe that they are the victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” The president was slapped back after his lackluster, grimacing first debate, leading to a New Yorker cover that pictured him as an empty chair at a lectern.

The latter was a callback to a previously much-mocked event, Clint Eastwood’s GOP convention speech, which was described by left-wing writer Jamelle Bouie as “an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama” – by implication, symbolic of the GOP itself.

Which is what can happen when race and demographics are brought in the equation: the optics can become too symbolic. Better to keep the colors as hazy backdrops, the campaigns seem to suggest, rather than put diversity front and center – where it can become a flashpoint for divisiveness.

Looking at the details

Seeing how they work is the province of political scientists – and some of them pay attention to the most trivial details.

To Costas Panagopolous, everything matters in an election campaign: the flag pins, the clothes, the camera angles, the audience. Everything makes an impression.

Panagopolous, a political scientist at Fordham University, watches how the candidates present themselves visually, whether on the stump or in advertisements. All this stagecraft makes a difference, he says.

“Studies reveal that the visual contextual elements can be very effective in engaging voters,” says Panagopolous, who directs the university’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy. Even peripheral details can make a difference, if only subconsciously.

In a recent study, Panagopolous sent postcards to Key West, Florida, urging citizens to vote. One set of postcards featured a palm tree, another an American flag, the third a cropped picture of eyes. The only postcard that stimulated voting was the one with the eyes, which Panagopolous attributes to the feeling of being watched.

It’s yet another indication there’s something within our psychology that’s programmed to respond to certain messages, he says.

“An individual’s reactions to those elements are often happening at the subconscious level,” he says, “hard-wired by our biological and genetic predispositions and evolutionary predispositions.”

In the 21st century, with so many means of communication available, optics are stressed more than ever.

Some are old: Yard signs are still effective because they appeal to community, says Panagopolous. Some are new: Internet ads and social media can identify voter tendencies through search algorithms. Some combine today and yesterday, such as flyers that can be precisely targeted through direct mail.

Barack Obama – also jacket-less – waves to a crowd on the campaign trail. The faces in the audience can suggest as much as the candidate.

Do they really change minds? Experts still argue the question.

“I’m not quite convinced the American people are troubled by a politician not wearing a flag lapel pin,” says Robert Eisinger, a political scientist and dean at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). “Consultants and advisers believe it’s important, but I’m more skeptical.”

On the other hand, you never know what makes a difference: He refers to one study that indicated a split-second look at two candidates’ faces was enough for observers to discern the winner.

“We’re still trying to figure out why,” Eisinger says. “The political psychologists are exploring what is it about image that appears to matter?”

The faces of America

Politicians don’t necessarily care about the “why.” They just know optics work.

To that end, campaigns spend a lot of time showing the many faces of America. Thanks to modern media, the campaigning works on local, regional and national levels.

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and former advance man for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, saw that firsthand. By the time the campaign came to town, Mackowiak and his colleagues had already worked with local leaders to underline the campaign’s point (rounding up doctors for a speech on health care, for example), had people vetted so that they didn’t step on the message – and made sure to showcase a demographic smorgasbord. The appearances would inevitably make the national news; some of them would be re-purposed for TV commercials.

“Generally having a backdrop of other people provides a depth and a color to an event that makes it look more alive,” he says.

There are drawbacks. At a live event there’s a risk of showing drowsy faces or a fatigued candidate. That means there’s little time for nuance, says Middle Tennessee State political science professor Kent Syler.

“As issues have become more complicated, attention spans of voters are shorter because there is so much information out there,” says Syler, a former campaign manager and congressional chief of staff. “It has made symbolism and appearance even more important. Voters will fall back on whether or not they feel good about the person.”

Campaigns weren’t always so detailed – and they didn’t need to be. In the 19th century, politics was entertainment, notes Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia. It was a big deal when a presidential campaign came to town – a day full of speeches and picnics and rallies around bonfires. The candidate himself need not attend; in fact, until about 1896, anybody who wanted to see them in person generally had to travel to the candidate’s home. (Campaigns obliged by offering railroad specials for supporters.) The traveling rallies were full of surrogates.

In the 19th century, it was unusual for presidential candidates to travel. William McKinley conducted much of his 1896 campaign from his house.

Moreover, elections weren’t all about the presidency, he adds. “They were much more about mobilizing the troops” for the many other slots on the ticket.

The rise of new technologies changed all that. Warren G. Harding benefited from movie newsreels, appearing with the stars of the day while giving speeches from his Ohio house. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a shrewd user of radio.

But television had the biggest impact.

TV emphasized the visual. TV rewarded cool. TV brought local scenes into living rooms all over the country, making the optics even more important.

Candidates adapted quickly. Dwight Eisenhower hired the pioneering adman Rosser Reeves for his 1952 campaign. John F. Kennedy wrote an article about the future of politics on TV for TV Guide magazine in 1959. The next year, when he ran for president, Kennedy’s commercials stressed his youth and vigor, and his debate performance against a pallid Richard Nixon impressed viewers.

“This is a guy – and his campaign – who (was) aware of how television is shaping how people are processing politics,” SCAD’s Eisinger says.

Ronald Reagan took stage management to new levels when he was president. The former actor was well aware of the value of good lighting, colorful vistas and carefully controlled presentation, and for his 1984 campaign, his team – including aide Michael Deaver – pulled out all the stops.

“Mike was a master of choreography of events,” says Harvard professor and CNN contributor David Gergen, who served in Reagan’s first term. It was Deaver who was responsible for backlighting the Oval Office for Reagan’s prime-time presidential addresses, Deaver who made sure the president was photographed from high angles so his neck wattles didn’t show. Reagan, still the oldest man to have held the office, was also presented with a youthful vigor. He even re-created a Harry Truman-style whistle-stop tour, waving regally in front of thousands who gathered to watch his train go through – scenes that made it into an advertisement.

Eight years later, Bill Clinton took the concept of surrounding himself with an audience of average Americans – rather than the backdrop of a formal dais – and made it central to his campaign, says Darrell West, a political scientist based at the Brookings Institution. It’s now de rigueur for presidential candidates.

“When the television cameras were reporting what he said, it would be against a backdrop of a multicultural audience,” he says. “A lot of candidates (now) like to have the audience seated behind them, because it conveys leadership and having followers at the same time.”

Running the ‘demographics race’

Targeting cultural groups isn’t a new development, of course – those 19th-century candidates played to the ethnic clubhouses of their era. But in the TV age, demographic imagery is often used to emphasize a party’s positive outreach and make the candidate look good. Eisenhower’s ads included one that featured an African-American, unusual for the 1950s. One Kennedy commercial featured Harry Belafonte, known for his civil rights work;  Jackie Kennedy even did an ad in Spanish.

Reagan probably did the most thorough job with his 1984 “Morning in America” commercial, which was as representative as a war movie platoon – and just as cornily effective. “It’s morning again, in America,” a grandfatherly voice announced, followed by gauzy, heartwarming scenes of American life: urban and rural, station wagons and picket fences, old folks and newlyweds, children of various ethnicities, capped off by a flag-raising. Almost 30 years later, the images remain as optimistically “American” as sipping lemonade on a porch swing.

Ronald Reagan’s effective “Morning in America” ad featured images of Americans of many cultures and age groups.

Reagan’s commercial was a deliberate throwback that reflected the campaign’s message of a reborn America after years of splintering. (Clinton’s 1996 campaign, which promised to “build a bridge to the 21st century,” turned on the same optimism.) But in today’s roiled country, the 2012 candidates have to tread more gently on the demographics, say observers.

To San Francisco State’s Smith, Obama’s campaign seems “concerned that not too many African-Americans appear when he gives speeches,” in an effort to highlight the Democratic Party’s diversity among other ethnic groups. Romney’s campaign, on the other hand, “has the same problem that Republican nominees have had since Nixon,” Smith says. “The Republican Party is largely white, but it knows the norms in this country really don’t accept that. So they have to go out of their way to appear egalitarian racially and ethnically.”

It doesn’t take a political scientist to observe that the GOP is trying to come to grips with a demographics gap. During the Republican convention, the party made sure to highlight a diverse group of speakers, including the Hispanic Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Indian-American Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Utah congressional candidate Mia Love, who is black, Mormon and of Haitian heritage. But the rank-and-file, which was also greatly on display, remains largely white: According to a 2011 Gallup survey, party identifiers are “significantly more likely than the overall population to be non-Hispanic whites.”

As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) put it during the convention, “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Wedges and subtexts

Indeed, optics can just as easily be used as a wedge.

A 1972 Nixon ad, for example, showed a hard-hatted construction worker eating lunch while a narrator described a bill from his Democratic challenger, Sen. George McGovern, that would expand welfare. The subtext was hard to miss: blue-collar workers versus those mooching minorities.

Sixteen years later, George H.W. Bush visited a New Jersey flag factory and turned patriotism into a campaign issue after noting his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, had vetoed a Pledge of Allegiance requirement.

Presidential campaigns generally avoid making an overt issue of race, but as The Root observes, that’s not always the case down-ballot.

North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms made a brutal ad against his competitor, African-American mayor Harvey Gantt, showing a white man crumpling a rejection letter while a narrator intoned about “racial quotas.” More recently, an ad by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter said opponent Charlie Melancon was practically “putting out a welcome sign for illegal aliens.” Both senators won their races.

But presidential contests haven’t gone unscathed. Most infamously there was the Willie Horton ad, used by Bush’s 1988 campaign against Dukakis as a way of characterizing him as soft on crime. The ad told the story of Horton, an African-American inmate who had kidnapped and brutalized a couple while out on a weekend pass. The bearded Horton was every white suburbanite’s nightmare of the angry black man.

This year there are any number of wedge issues – including Medicare, immigration and welfare – and the demographic battlegrounds are equally numerous.

Meanwhile, optical precision keeps getting sharper.

For example, both parties have generally treated Hispanic voters as a monolithic entity, says Jill Hanauer, president of the left-leaning consultant Project New America. However, her firm’s research indicates that adding specific cultural symbols to appeal to slivers of the Hispanic audience can make the message more effective.

“Authenticity is important and it’s meaningful,” she says. “In the old days, both parties would do a bilingual piece of mail and maybe do one late-in-the-campaign radio spot in Spanish and call it a day. Campaigns now do deep research to understand who their target audiences are among Hispanics, what their audiences care about, and communicate appropriately.”

’It’s a television show’

All this focus on looking good on TV gets back to a primary criticism of optics: that they are all about style over substance. It’s not a new jibe.

In his 1969 book, “The Selling of the President 1968,” Joe McGinniss had fly-on-the-wall access for Nixon’s victorious run. Nixon had learned his lesson from 1960: in ‘68, he put together a team of advisers to mold his television image, including “Laugh-In” head writer Paul Keyes, former CBS executive Frank Shakespeare, ad man Harry Treleaven and a producer named Roger Ailes, who had been working for former big-band singer Mike Douglas’ daytime  talk-variety show. (Ailes is now head of Fox News.) Together, Nixon’s team played to the candidate’s strengths and minimized his weaknesses (“Avoid closeups,” wrote Treleaven in one memo).

Today, the book’s details may seem old hat – but still make for revealing reading.

For example, during the campaign, the advisers filled a panel of questioners with a then-contemporary version of diversity: one African-American (“Two would be offensive to whites,” McGinniss wrote. “Two would be trying too hard”), a Jewish attorney, the president of a Polish-Hungarian group, a suburban housewife, a businessman and a representative of the white lower-middle class. The audience, recruited by the party for the hourlong advertisement, was similarly balanced. Except for two panelists on hand for “authenticity,” reporters were not allowed in the studio.

It was a shrewd way of presenting the candidate and a vision of America – and bypassing the journalists. Asked why a pool of reporters wasn’t allowed to observe, Shakespeare said they would just interfere with the message. Ailes agreed.

“It’s a television show,” he told Treleaven. “Our television show.”

“On television it matters less that (the candidate) does not have ideas,” wrote McGinniss. “He need not be statesman nor crusader; he must only show up on time. … The TV candidate, then, is measured not against his predecessors – not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy – but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside?”

In modern parlance, that translates as, “Would I have a beer with this guy?”

That shallowness still troubles some observers – even admen.

“We’re suffering from genericide,” says Joey Reiman, who’s worked with such companies as Delta Airlines, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble.

Not that Reiman is surprised: The higher the office, he points out, the more basic the appeal tends to be, so “as you’re moving up to the presidency, the lowest common denominator are generic people.” In that respect, perhaps it makes sense for campaigns to retreat behind blurry colors.

The first Nixon-Kennedy debate reflected well on the cool, unflappable Kennedy.

Still, there are signs that – maybe – our lizard-brained psychology and ethnic tribalism are giving way to a willingness by individuals to go in new directions. If demographics are destiny, they’re also remarkably flexible when it comes to party identification. In a recent New York Times essay, historical novelist Kevin Baker observed that cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit were once Republican bastions. It wasn’t until recent decades – marked by white flight and gentrification – that urban areas have become reliably Democratic. Conversely, the once solidly Democratic South is now the most dependable Republican voting bloc – though that could change thanks to rising numbers of Hispanics.

Both parties may need to get beyond their optics and actually address the issues.

“You saw it with the last census – so many people view themselves as biracial, or they don’t identify through a racial lens,” says consultant Hanauer. She points to her 15-year-old son. “(He) doesn’t look at people from an ethnicity perspective, or a sexual-orientation one. He just looks at the character of the person. (That’s) really what we’re going to see politics of the future look like.”

A cynic might say, “Yeah, right.” After all, isn’t the whole point of optics that we’re captive to our shallowest impulses?

But Reiman, the adman, certainly hopes change is afoot. Candidates do best and inspire most when they tap into a larger purpose, he believes, and thus far what we’ve seen in 2012 is shallow and small-bore.

“We’re here for a greater meaning,” he says. “Meaning in business makes money, and in politics it wins elections. What’s happened in the political campaigns is we’re avoiding doing great good because we want to avoid looking bad.”