Worn, With Pride: Old Stickers Mean Status in the Obama Camp

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's a tiny thing, but you notice it anyway, walking around the city. On a brisk, sunny day in Georgetown, there it is again: a coat bearing a worn, wrinkled Obama sticker.

Look -- another one! You can see them all around town.

In this, the campaign that goes on and on, why would anyone be inclined to hold on to something so transient, so fragile, as an aging campaign sticker? (And why, in our travels about town -- a survey of sorts that's hardly exhaustive -- do we not see well-worn stickers for John McCain or Hillary Clinton?)

"I was joking about this exact same thing the other day," says Howard Park, 49, an Obama supporter who lives on Capitol Hill and who's had the same beat-up sticker on his winter coat since he volunteered for Obama in New Hampshire last fall. "It kind of shows we were here in the beginning," not like "the new, mint-condition sticker people."

Politics is like rock music this way. Everyone wants everybody else to know they were there first, man, before the album's Pitchfork review and the sold-out gig at the 9:30 club. You've been with Obama since The Speech? Well, I knew him before The Speech! (If you have to ask which speech, there's one word for you, and it rhymes with "oozer.")

There are other, more prosaic reasons for holding on to those crumbly old stickers. It's not terribly easy to get your hands on an Obama sticker in the D.C. area -- not anymore, two-plus months after the Potomac primary.

"You have to go online and buy them," says Democratic and gay activist Phil Pannell, 57, who has several coats with well-worn Obama campaign stickers on them. "If you have a sticker you better hold on to it." Also: "If you see the rainbow stickers for the gay supporters, very difficult to find."

The reality is, even though one could buy a batch of 50 Obama stickers from the campaign's online store -- and possibly experience a two- to three-week delay due to overwhelming demand, according to a Web site warning -- most people get their stickers the old-fashioned way, for free. And that means they've had to show up somewhere, say at a rally or a get-out-the-vote effort. And that means the sticker is worth way more than its face value. They had to work for it.

"Just in general, it's pretty impossible to get any gear at this point unless you are volunteering," says Paige Shevlin, 24, who works at a local think tank and has volunteered for Obama in five states. (She had an ancient sticker on her windbreaker forever . . . until this past weekend, when her sister noted how old it looked and said, "Don't you think it's time to take that sticker off?")

The display of the campaign sticker is a form of group consciousness, a way of saying, Here's who I am, now where's everyone else like me? On what other occasion does a mass-produced piece of paper with adhesive on its back signify so much? People don't keep themselves adorned for weeks with stickers announcing that they voted or that they gave blood. Whatever the reasons, those aging Obama stickers seem further evidence of a campaign that looks more like a movement. "Anybody that has an Obama sticker or an Obama button is automatically your BFF," says Chrisi West, 28, who helps coordinate Alexandria 4 Obama and finds herself in conversation with strangers on the basis of such signifiers. West is more of a pin person -- she had one for months, she lost it, she cried. But she gets the sticker thing, too. She recognizes her tribe in those aging stickers and buttons she sees on the coats of strangers.

"The more beat-up the better," she says, "because it shows that they've been really working hard for the campaign."

She calls them "battle scars."

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