In his 1988 song “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” British troubadour Billy Bragg promised, “The Revolution is just a T-shirt away.” It’s taken a while, but the 2004 election could prove Bragg right, with one qualification: It won’t be just a T-shirt; it’ll be a million. Among the dozens of groups seeking to stir nonvoters to action this year, none have created quite the sensation that the nonpartisan November 2 Campaign has by reducing the whole of the political debate and the process surrounding it to a single message: the election date. And the campaign has plastered it everywhere: on buses and bus stops, billboards, television and movie theater public-service ads and across hundreds of thousands of chests. November 2 T-shirts are showing up everywhere, from coffee shops in Santa Monica to black churches in Georgia to The Tonight Show, where singer Joss Stone sported one a month before the election.
The November 2 Campaign, operating for the most part below the media radar, grew out of a decision by the NAACP National Voter Fund, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the People for the American Way Foundation, the USAction Education Fund, ACORN and 1,000 other nonpartisan groups to create a new kind of voter registration and mobilization effort. The point, explains Mark Ritchie, national coordinator for National Voice, the temporary coalition set up by the nonpartisan groups, is to reach people who aren’t touched by traditional campaigns. “There’s a huge group of Americans–many of them young people, women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and other communities of color–who have become disengaged from the voting process, some by choice, some by neglect and some by forces beyond their control,” says Ritchie. “We wanted to reach them and bring them into the process, and we knew that traditional approaches weren’t going to work.”
Step one was to pull together a coalition of nonpartisan groups working on innovative projects such as the drive by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio to recruit voters at homeless shelters and public housing projects; Mi Familia Vota, a push to register and turn out 50,000 new Hispanic voters in Florida; and 1,000 Flowers, an outreach campaign aimed at beauty salons frequented by low-income and young women that hands out neon-bright nail files with the slogan “Don’t let this election be a nail biter.”
Step two was to create a national media campaign. With money from foundations such as Arca, Beldon, HKH and Cedar Tree, the November 2 Campaign hired Weiden+Kennedy, an ad agency with experience developing campaigns for Nike that arguably have been a lot more successful at reaching young people and minority communities than any recent political campaigns. The agency’s idea of reducing the entire election to its date, coupling it with an energetic call to action and a campaign featuring images of a broad cross-section of Americans wearing the T-shirts, was met with derision by traditional pols. “People from the old-school politics looked at it and said, ‘Oh, you have to be more in everyone’s face,'” Ritchie recalls. “They’d say, ‘What’s your message?'”
But the success of the project suggests that the message is resonating louder than a lot of what the campaigns have done. Indeed, at a time when both the right and the left are pushing voter registration, progressives believe the November 2 Campaign is more than countering conservative initiatives. “There’s an inspirational and optimistic quality to it, combined with real service, reminding people when to vote. It’s civics with an edge,” says MoveOn.org executive director Peter Schurman, who wears a November 2 T-shirt. Jen Rubin, who has distributed November 2 Campaign materials as part of efforts to mobilize high school and college students as well as victims of domestic violence, living in the battleground state of Wisconsin, says, “When people see the T-shirt, they’ll wonder for a second, and then they get it, and they start talking about the election. It’s the best way to engage people who aren’t all that into politics that I’ve ever seen.” Rubin, like many November 2 campaigners, is now featured in the campaign’s advertising–activists are urged to get their picture taken wearing the T-shirt and send it to www.november2.org, where new images are constantly downloaded and added to posters, television ads and billboards. With close to 200,000 volunteers carrying the November 2 message, and new voter registrations going through the roof, the campaign has upped its goal from turning out 4 million new and infrequent voters to turning out 5 million.
In the final weeks, the group’s materials will shout, “No more polls. No more ads. No more spin. We decide.” But without polls, ads and spin, what will be left? T-shirts. Ritchie says he expects 1 million people will be wearing them on Election Day.