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Obama's American landscape

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While canvassing for Barack Obama, Jaffer Kolb observes the power of the American suburb

A walk in the suburbs of North Carolina just before last week’s American presidential election revealed a conflicting landscape of supportive signage. Like the famous Las Vegas strip studied by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a bizarre syntax emerged from the signage, though here it was a binary code of ‘Obama’ and ‘McCain’. These signs were bound to a system of signification based in large part on the built environment – associated as they were with particular kinds of architecture – and revealed both the proclivities and the type of the residents in these hotspots.

Neither Democratic candidate Barack Obama nor Republican hopeful John McCain campaigned in New York, California or Boston, Massachusetts. To much of the world, these places are America. They represent the centres of global capital and culture and, as a result, tend to attract well-educated, left-leaning elites. The population of these areas is vastly denser than the rest of the country, but given the USA’s system of electoral colleges, where each state is allotted a certain number of votes instead of a direct voting system, they don’t count much in an election. New York, Massachusetts and California are a given as Democratic states, and candidates don’t bother giving them much attention.

And so, as was the case in the last election four years ago and the one four years before that, swing states like Florida, Ohio, Indiana, South Carolina and Pennsylvania dominated the American landscape for several months before the election. Walking the streets in at least two of these states – I canvassed for president-elect Obama in North Carolina and Pennsylvania – was eye-opening, not just for the experience itself, but also in terms of putting a picture to swathes of the country that see far less traffic than its cities.

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