"On television it matters less that (the candidate) does not have ideas," wrote McGinniss. "He need not be statesman nor crusader; he must only show up on time. ... The TV candidate, then, is measured not against his predecessors -- not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy -- but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside?"
In modern parlance, that translates as, "Would I have a beer with this guy?"
That shallowness still troubles some observers -- even admen.
"We're suffering from genericide," says Joey Reiman, who's worked with such companies as Delta Airlines, McDonald's and Procter & Gamble.
Not that Reiman is surprised: The higher the office, he points out, the more basic the appeal tends to be, so "as you're moving up to the presidency, the lowest common denominator are generic people." In that respect, perhaps it makes sense for campaigns to retreat behind blurry colors.
Still, there are signs that -- maybe -- our lizard-brained psychology and ethnic tribalism are giving way to a willingness by individuals to go in new directions. If demographics are destiny, they're also remarkably flexible when it comes to party identification. In a recent New York Times essay, historical novelist Kevin Baker observed that cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit were once Republican bastions. It wasn't until recent decades - marked by white flight and gentrification - that urban areas have become reliably Democratic. Conversely, the once solidly Democratic South is now the most dependable Republican voting bloc -- though that could change thanks to rising numbers of Hispanics.
Both parties may need to get beyond their optics and actually address the issues.
"You saw it with the last census -- so many people view themselves as biracial, or they don't identify through a racial lens," says consultant Hanauer. She points to her 15-year-old son. "(He) doesn't look at people from an ethnicity perspective, or a sexual-orientation one. He just looks at the character of the person. (That's) really what we're going to see politics of the future look like."
A cynic might say, "Yeah, right." After all, isn't the whole point of optics that we're captive to our shallowest impulses?
But Reiman, the adman, certainly hopes change is afoot. Candidates do best and inspire most when they tap into a larger purpose, he believes, and thus far what we've seen in 2012 is shallow and small-bore.
"We're here for a greater meaning," he says. "Meaning in business makes money, and in politics it wins elections. What's happened in the political campaigns is we're avoiding doing great good because we want to avoid looking bad."