Politicards: Still Illustrating Presidential Elections After 40 Years

Election 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the series, which boasts caricatures of political bigwigs.

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Courtesy of Peter Green Design

2012 presidential candidates President Barack Obama (D) and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) get the Politicards treatment

At a time when The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, The Borowitz Report, and The Onion are dominating satirical coverage of Election 2012, it might seem like the cards are stacked against Politicards — the collectible playing cards that for the past 40 years have caricatured each election’s major players.

(MORE: TIME’s 1972 article about the first deck of Politicards)

This year’s deck, designed by illustrator Peter Green, 67, marks the 40th anniversary of the series. Each card features a watercolor drawing of a politico dressed like a movie character and a memorable movie quote at the bottom. The higher the politician is ranked within the party, the higher the card on which he will appear, and vice-versa.

Some of the links are pretty obvious: gaffe-prone Joe Biden is the king of clubs, and his movie quote comes from the movie The Big Mouth (1967); GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan as the Jack of Hearts is based on Saving Private Ryan (1998). The ace of hearts features the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and is inspired by Cry-Baby (1990). The eight of hearts portrays Karl Rove as Gepetto from Pinocchio (1940), controlling a marionette puppet of an elephant.  Tea Party standard bearer Michele Bachmann  is the queen of hearts, done up as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland (2009): an elephant teapot pours tea, but misses the cup, illustrating how the Tea Party operates outside party lines.

(LIST: Gaffes of 2012)

As politics have become more partisan, the cards have also become more over-the-top and kitschy — hence the emphasis on Hollywood movies in the 2008 and 2012 decks and song titles in the 2004 deck. Up until 2004, the cards were just funny drawings of politicians, making it hard to recognize the figures unless you were a political junkie.

“I used to think that if you don’t know who [the caricatures are supposed to be] then it’s your problem, but maybe that’s a little too hardline, because maybe not everyone knows who they are,” Green said.

He tells NewsFeed that they are just his way of trying to inform voters of the issues and the big names in each presidential election. “I do think the average voter is so preoccupied with his work and his family and his TV shows that people are just not getting into the issues the way they should,” said Green, who has also drawn illustrations for Esquire, New York Magazine, Playboy, and the Los Angeles Times. “I hope the cards will make politics fun.”

(MORE: Romney, Obama Gangam Style Parodies)

But while Politicards’ topical humor comes out every four years, and the company sells 75,000-100,000 decks a year, Saturday Night Live is dishing out topical jokes every week to millions of viewers. So to keep the game current, Politicards released a Solitaire version of Politicards 2012 that can be played on Kindle Fire, iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. At a time when there are more user-produced videos mentioning Obama and Romney on YouTube than official campaign videos, Politicards also released a short YouTube video of Whose Line Is It Anyway? actor Jim Meskimen impersonating the heavyweights in the deck. He has even considered producing animated shorts of the caricatures, something similar to the Jib Jab videos.

Nevertheless, Green has come a long way from fishing out used photographs of pols from the L.A. Times‘ collection (nicknamed “the morgue”) that he could use to create hand-tinted charcoal drawings for the first Politicards in 1972. Green says that First Lady Mamie Eisenhower used to play bridge with a deck of his cards, which featured her grandson David Eisenhower, and that the Russian embassy in Washington has handed them out as party favors.

Green’s favorite politician to draw? President Richard M. Nixon. “I do miss him over the years,” Green says. “He really had an interesting face because he hunched over quite a bit, and he looked pretty slippery.”

Plus, playing cards as a metaphor is not leaving the political lexicon any time soon, which may give Politicards a timeless appeal. As Green points out: “Cards are used in politics quite a bit, especially expressions like playing the race card, bluffing, and there’s a whole power structure in the game of cards, too.”

Politicards can be found at nationwide stores like 7-Eleven, Urban Outfitters, Books-a-Million, and specialty stores like The Strand in New York City.

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