The images -- on TV, YouTube, our social networks -- have become so familiar that we take them for granted.
We're treated to scenes of Barack Obama with a group of middle Americans at a cozy restaurant table, then with an African-American woman in an office. Or we see clips from a rally, the president surrounded by faces of all ages and hues.
It's much the same with Mitt Romney: A quartet of white male engineers pore over plans, then an African-American woman talks with a colleague. We see shots of factory workers, then a burst of flags as the candidate heads for the stage. Or we get farms, children and a colorful audience at a speech.
More than 60 years into the Television Age, campaign messages have become a formula: Uplifting ads are full of inspirational music, flapping flags and stolid candidate portrayals; negative ones feature ominous melodies, dramatic black-and-white images and gloomy narrators.
Either way, they're often shot documentary-style, with shaky cameras and changing focus, so that live rallies look like commercials and commercials look like rallies. Whether live rallies or tightly scripted spots, almost all of it ends up on TV or the Internet, turning the campaign into one giant advertisement.
And in almost every instance, the people look like America -- or at least the idealized, multicultural mosaic we imagine the country to be, even including types once considered "edgy." One Obama ad shows a lightly tattooed woman; one Romney ad, perhaps the candidate's most pointed, includes a mother with a nose stud. Suffice it to say, these are not the sorts of images that would have passed muster even half a generation ago.
In the 24/7 world of presidential campaigning, all are welcome, all are included.
In some respects, perhaps this is a good thing. It's the "post-racial America" many hoped for with Obama's election, in which (to borrow some famous words) people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
We simply assume, says San Francisco State University political scientist Robert Smith, that "the norm -- and this is a good norm -- is an ethnically and racially diverse and egalitarian society," and the campaigns must reflect that.
But on another level, these images -- the optics - can be seen as a sign of timidity, as both major campaigns use diversity as wallpaper without actually engaging in the issues raised by a multicultural society.
"That sort of bigger vision, and a more adventurous sensibility, is something that's entirely lacking from this campaign. This is a small - bordering on minuscule - campaign," says John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University. Both candidates, he says, "are as risk-averse as possible."
And really, who can blame them? The electorate, we're constantly reminded, is evenly (and viciously) divided. Obama, already mistrusted by a portion of that electorate, doesn't want to poke at any beehives; Romney, trying to make a case he can help the sluggish economy, paints himself as a cool, technocratic fix-it man.
Neither candidate has ventured much into the wider America; the vast majority of their campaign stops since July 1 have been in battleground states, especially Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Florida -- and even then, the candidates have generally stuck to inoffensive backdrops such as schools, farms, hotel ballrooms and the most generic of all, the airport tarmac. (Check out CNN's Campaign Tracker)
The days of spending time in the urban blight of the South Bronx (as Ronald Reagan did in a response to a Jimmy Carter appearance) or with South Central L.A. residents after the 1992 riots (Bill Clinton) seem long past. Sure, one of Romney's ads does feature him in gutted-out Detroit -- but he's seen driving by rotting houses from the remove of his driver's seat.
Besides, certain optics can only get you in trouble, as both Obama and Romney know. Who can forget Michael Dukakis, trying to demonstrate his defense bona fides, peeking out of a tank like a curious gopher? Or windsurfing John Kerry, whose Vietnam War heroism was turned against him by the Swift Boaters?
Indeed, both candidates have already seen it happen. The Obama campaign made hay with Romney's "47 percent" video, in which the former Bain Capital chief was recorded in front of wealthy fundraisers referring to Obama supporters as people who "believe that they are the victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them." The president was slapped back after his lackluster, grimacing first debate, leading to a New Yorker cover that pictured him as an empty chair at a lectern.
The latter was a callback to a previously much-mocked event, Clint Eastwood's GOP convention speech, which was described by left-wing writer Jamelle Bouie as "an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama" -- by implication, symbolic of the GOP itself.
Which is what can happen when race and demographics are brought in the equation: the optics can become too symbolic. Better to keep the colors as hazy backdrops, the campaigns seem to suggest, rather than put diversity front and center - where it can become a flashpoint for divisiveness.
Looking at the details
Seeing how they work is the province of political scientists -- and some of them pay attention to the most trivial details.
To Costas Panagopolous, everything matters in an election campaign: the flag pins, the clothes, the camera angles, the audience. Everything makes an impression.
Panagopolous, a political scientist at Fordham University, watches how the candidates present themselves visually, whether on the stump or in advertisements. All this stagecraft makes a difference, he says.
"Studies reveal that the visual contextual elements can be very effective in engaging voters," says Panagopolous, who directs the university's Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy. Even peripheral details can make a difference, if only subconsciously.
In a recent study, Panagopolous sent postcards to Key West, Florida, urging citizens to vote. One set of postcards featured a palm tree, another an American flag, the third a cropped picture of eyes. The only postcard that stimulated voting was the one with the eyes, which Panagopolous attributes to the feeling of being watched.
It's yet another indication there's something within our psychology that's programmed to respond to certain messages, he says.