Date of Award

Fall 2010

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Kurk Dorsey


In the fall of 1976 Jimmy Carter wanted to be "an American President... who is not isolated from our people, but a President who feels your pain and who shares your dreams." With humble, hopeful, homey images of Plains, Georgia, campaign advertisements sold Carter as a fresh-off-the-farm, peanut-picking Cincinnatus---an authentic American to whom voters could relate.

Authenticity became increasingly important to candidate selection in the late twentieth century for multiple reasons. As a priority of the Babyboom Generation, the value of authenticity informed Americans' relationships to own another and evaluations of their cultural products. Political and cultural upheaval resulting from Vietnam and Watergate challenged Americans' trust in politicians and campaign politics; resulting structural reforms transformed presidential nomination and election processes. The growth of soft news, human interest, and television talk shows required candidates to become personally available in order to connect with voters intimately.

This dissertation examines the role of candidate image in recent American presidential elections, focusing on the dominant cultural vocabulary of authenticity. While partisan affiliation, ideology, and economic trends were all essential determinants of election outcomes between 1976 and 2000, no one theme permeated campaign discourse more than authenticity.

The bulk of this dissertation is devoted to analyzing the ways in which symbols of authenticity operated during specific election cycles. Although cultural vocabulary evolved between 1976 and 2000, several core themes dominated campaign rhetoric: colloquial language and dress, personal narrative and self-disclosure, and anti-elitism. In defining these authenticities, the project also explores negative constructions of inauthenticity associated with the "flip-flop," the Beltway elite, the Ivy League, and the Northeast. Each chapter examines a single general election season to uncover the ways in which Americans assimilated candidate images during that cycle. By examining televised and printed news, commentary, and comedy, along with political polls, campaign documents, manuscript collections, and political advertisements, this dissertation argues that Americans privileged campaign narratives that were authentically representative of themselves and their country.