Pickup Politics Mold Southern Campaigns

Throughout America, political campaigns are not just emphasizing what candidates say, but what they drive.

On the campaign trail for Florida governor, Janet Reno toured the sunshine state in a red pickup truck.

During his campaign film at the 2000 Republican National Convention, George W. Bush was shown driving around his Texas ranch in a rugged work vehicle.

And in South Carolina, state and local candidates prominently feature pickup trucks in their television campaign advertisements.

"The trucks are not there by accident," said Jeri Cabot, Ph.D., a College of Charleston professor who studies politics and the media. "You have approximately 67 cents of every campaign dollar spent on advertising. You know these candidates are thinking about every image that they put in the ad."

South Carolina's Republican Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, a dairy farmer from the rural town of Gaffney, prominently featured his pickup truck in campaign ads during his bid for governor.

In one ad, Peeler is seen driving his truck while a narrator reads, "As lieutenant governor, Bob Peeler was given a security detail, personal driver and a state car. Bob Peeler said, 'No thanks.'"

The ad concludes with a shot of Peeler's pickup truck parked outside the South Carolina capitol in Columbia.

"I think [the pickup truck] shows that the candidate is in touch with everyday people," said Robert Adams, Peeler's campaign manager. "And in our case, I thought it was very much a bona fide portrayal of who Bob Peeler really is."

In South Carolina's tight Republican primary, Peeler lost a runoff to candidate Mark Sanford of Sullivans Island, S.C., who also drove a pickup truck in a campaign ad.

South Carolina's Democratic incumbent, Gov. Jim Hodges, has not used pickup trucks in his campaign commercials nor does he plan to, according to his staff.

However, state Democrats attempted to make the pickup truck in Sanford's TV ad backfire, politically speaking.

"He doesn't even own the pickup truck he is driving in his phony ad," said Joanie Lawson, executive director of South Carolina's Democratic Party, in an April 12 press release. "Mark Sanford is misleading the people with his farmer ploy. He's all hat and no cattle."

Sanford admits he borrowed a supporter's truck for the campaign ad, but insists it was not for lack of having his own trucks at his family's farm near Beaufort, S.C.

"The beat-up old pickup trucks down on the farm frankly don't look good enough to put on the commercials we are running," Sanford said.

Sanford, who takes pride in running a grassroots campaign out of the basement of his Sullivans Island beach house, said what matters is not whether he owns the truck, but that he lives up to what the truck represents: hard work and reliability.

"Oddly enough, a truck, in many ways, symbolizes country life, rural life, a different set of values," Sanford said.

Those concepts would take too long to verbalize in a 30-second campaign ad. But with the image of a pickup truck, candidates hope a picture is worth a thousand words.