In early October, Mitt Romney’s son Josh tweeted a picture of his parents standing under a sign that read “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” The phrase was a direct quote from the critically acclaimed and beloved television series Friday Night Lights. But Romney wasn’t the only presidential candidate to turn the quote into a campaign slogan. In May, the Obama for America Tumblr page had posted a photo of the president throwing a football with the phrase “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,” captioning the shot.
For a show that remained on the edge of renewal for its five-season run because of its inability to capture a sizable audience, Friday Night Lights is certainly gaining a disproportionately high amount of attention from candidates, media and the voters. The show was based around the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, the quintessential southern rural town that lived for Friday night football. FNL told stories about football players, high school students, coaches and parents, and perhaps most importantly, the struggles, challenges and passion of small-town America. The quote’s usage has triggered a Romney endorsement from the author who wrote the book the show was based on and a legal threat from the show’s creator. Multiple articles have been written about whom the fictional town’s citizens would vote for, and everyone from fans and journalists to the show’s own cast and crew have discussed which candidate the town would or should stand behind.
Why are the worlds of a fictional rural football town and the 2012 presidential election converging so much? Friday Night Lights is, in my opinion, one of the greatest shows to have hit the small screen in the past decade. But it’s also coming into the political discussion at an interesting time. And though Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both appear to be fans of the show, it’s far more likely that it’s being used to make the candidates seem relatable, particularly to voters in small-town America who have been hit particularly hard by the economy and are watching diametrically different arguments about the state of their country and who’s best suited to lead them to prosperity.
In a piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing candidates’ attempts to be relatable, UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck points out that a candidate’s goal is to “make people think they’re like me. There’s an implication that if they’re like me, their policies will be good for people like me.” Both Romney and Obama have a lot to gain from convincing voters that the person who will lead them from the Oval Office would be just as likely to sit next to them drinking a beer and watching Friday night football. And while Romney has endured his share of criticism about being elitist and out of touch with regular America, Obama’s had trouble gaining a polling edge with white voters, a problem that’s been consistently present since the 2008 election. Coincidentally, the residents of Dillon are both working-class and largely white, so it’s easy to understand why appealing to show’s culture and audience would work favorably for either candidate.
A Newsweek poll conducted in 2008 asked voters about the relatability of candidates. Sample questions included asking respondents which candidate “best understands the problems and concerns of people like you/shares your values/would fit in with people in your local community?” Obama came out on top in most of the results, signifying that perhaps voters aren’t always looking for a leader when they step into a voting booth. Sometimes, they’re just looking for the person they could imagine being their next-door neighbor.
In his book The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power, author Jeffrey Alexander points out that “modern culture provides anchoring codes and narratives,” allowing candidates to structure their campaigns around a cultural voice already in existence (p. 258). Friday Night Lights, and the small-town, homegrown American culture and values it represented are the perfect narrative for either presidential candidate. And “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” might just be the most perfect, best-scripted slogan a campaign in the 2012 presidential election could ask for.