Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Role of Contrast in a Political Campaign

This morning I was making coffee, and the cat, Squeaker, was trying to get my attention.  Squeaker is called Squeaker because she does not meow; she squeaks.  Early morning sunshine was coming through the east window in the kitchen, casting a spot of bright sunlight on the maple floorboards.  Squeaker, being a black cat, went to the sunny spot.  Squeaker, wanting to get petted, started writhing in the sunlight, squeaking. 

I looked at Squeaker. 

Last night, I spent some time uploading pictures from my son's recent trip to China.  I had used Photoshop Elements to adjust some of the pictures.  As the coffee was brewing, I thought about photography; looking a the cat, I had a memory.   Kevin's mother once looked at a picture I had taken, of one of her black cats, Jeffrey.  She commented that the picture showed detail in the black fur.   Most of her pictures of the cat were snapshots, taken with a cheap camera, that did not resolve such detail.  The black fur was rendered as a patch of complete black.  No detail.  If you want to get detail in the black, you have to get the exposure just right.

Jeffrey was named after a professor we knew, Jeffrey Parsons, and is memorialized in a poem:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

Squeaker is a lot like Jeffrey was.  She wreathes round with elegant quickness, in the early morning sunlight.  I thought about taking a picture of her, but decided against it.  It would not have been possible to get a good picture, because the specular reflections on the maple floorboards, combined with the black fur, presented too much contrast.  If the floor were exposed properly, the cat would be all black; no detail would be visible.  If the fur were exposed properly, the floor would be too bright; again, the details would be lost.

The point is this: in situations of high contrast, it is difficult to discern fine details.  Likewise, in situations of low contrast, it is difficult to see details.

Some of you might recall something about the 2000 presidential campaign in the United States of America.  It is hard to believe, now, that there was a popular perception that there was not a huge difference between the candidates.  There was so little contrast, that it was difficult for some people to see the details.  This is described in a post-election analysis written in December 2000:

Lessons for Next Time
The American Prospect
By  Ruy  Teixeira
Issue Date: 12.18.00

[...] The Institute for America's Future poll shows just how successful Bush's issue-blurring strategy was. While voters who could make a distinction tended to favor Gore's approach in the areas of education, a patients' bill of rights, and prescription drugs, about half could not see enough difference between Gore and Bush to form a judgment. Similarly, over two-fifths of voters could not see enough difference between the candidates' plans to form a judgment on the Social Security issue. This pattern is consistent with a variety of pre-election polls that showed Bush narrowing Gore's issue advantage over the last two months of the campaign as he rolled out his own versions of Democratic programs and emphasized the broad themes of trust, values, and big government. [...]

The campaign in 2000 was a low-contrast campaign.  This is not the case in 2004.  Now that Mr. Bush has been seen in the bright morning light, it will not be possible for him to campaign as a chameleon.  Instead, he is trying to campaign as a Komodo Dragon, casting Mr. Kerry as the chameleon.  Entirely opposite of the situation in 2000, voters now are faced with a different problem.  It is not a low-contrast situation, in which it is difficult to discern meaningful differences between the candidates; rather, we see a stark, blinding contrast. 

Komodo DragonChameleon

The outcome is still the same, in one way.  It is hard to see the details. 

Interested persons might like to read this article, by David J. Sirota, also from The American Prospect.   Mr. Sirota does a nice job of capturing the details, despite the blinding contrast.  He gets the exposure just right.

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