Obama on the Cover
Magazine Cover Portrayal of the 2008 Campaign

By Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action – initial draft Dec. 2008; last revised and updated October 28, 2009

An illustration or a photograph and a few carefully chosen words designed to catch your eye, pique your curiosity and hopefully get you to stop, pick up a copy and buy it--this is what a magazine cover can do.  By the time a weekly magazine hits the newsstands or arrives in the mail, a whole week’s worth of events has passed by.  Accordingly, magazines must seek to provide something different than the daily paper, often by highlighting broader themes and currents.  Even if the cover doesn’t cause us to stop and buy a copy of the magazine, we may view it in the newsstand window as we rush by in the morning to catch the Metro and again in the evening as we head for home.  Copies of magazines may grace our living room tables or office reception areas for weeks or even months, thereby influencing our impressions of the individuals and events depicted.

Introduction and Methodology

This is a non-scientific but fairly intense survey of how major U.S. news, opinion, general interest and more specialized magazines portrayed the 2008 presidential campaign and candidates on their covers, based on frequent visits to local news agents here in Washington, DC as well as close attention to the web.  The survey does not include every single campaign-related magazine cover issued.  Two newsmagazines not included in this survey are The Week and Newsmax (this omission is an artifact from the 2000 and 2004 studies which also did not consider those magazines).  Text-only covers are not included; covers must have some graphic elements to be considered.  Also not considered are instances where a candidate or the campaign is shown in a secondary position on the cover, for example in the upper left corner or in a strip across the top.  To present a broader picture, a number of magazines from overseas are also considered.

It is important to emphasize that the survey covers a broad swath of magazines.  An opinion magazine has a different audience than a news magazine which in turn has a different audience than a celebrity magazine.  For some magazines, newsstand sales are significant and for others and for others minor or negligible.1  The publicity director for one opinion magazine wrote in an e-mail that, "Newsstand sales are small.  The size of your enterprise and corporate relationships between newsstands and publishers matter more than the covers ... We have to fight through a Conde Nast haze to get our issues in a good place."

Likewise the covers encompass many different media.  There are portraits by top photographers such as Annie Liebovitz, Platon and Nigel Parry; news photographs; photo illustrations which manipulate a photograph or photographs using Photoshop or other means; and straight illustrations by well and lesser known artists.  Some magazines frequently feature works by a particular illustrator as for example Roman Genn for National Review or Krieg Barrie for World.  Some of the more interesting covers are highly conceptual; for example Newsweek's May 5, 2008 "Obama's Bubba Gap" cover showed arugula and beer as symbols of Obama and Clinton.  National Journal tends to do a fair number of conceptual covers as well.
In this paper covers are referred to by (and listed in rough chronological order based on) cover issue dates.  Keep in mind that magazines typically come out earlier than the date on the cover; for a bi-weekly magazine one will have to calculate two weeks back to figure out when it first appeared; monthlies usually come out in the later part of the preceding month (i.e. Sept. 2008 cover date likely means the magazine first appeared in the latter part of August).2 
“Obama covers” are defined as those featuring Obama, Obama and his family, Obama and members of his team or his running mate, Obama other figures who are not competing candidates, and representations of Obama (for example the Obama logo).  The same applies to "McCain covers," "Palin covers" and so forth.  This definition is used even if a cover was dominated by one candidate and the other candidate or candidates are in minor roles.  Covers with multiple candidates of both parties, multiple Democratic candidates, multiple Republican candidates, and general election matchup covers are grouped separately.  

A editorial cartoon by Michael Ramirez shows four people waiting at a bus stop.  The first states, "President Bush is not on the list of 100 most influential people in the world."  The second person says, "Neither is Time Magazine."  The third person chimes in, "Is Time Magazine still in business?"  And the fourth says, "What's Time Magazine?"

News organizations faced difficult times in 2008 and indeed in recent years; there were frequent reports of downsizing, layoffs and buyouts.  With its March 19, 2007 issue The New Republic switched from a weekly to a bi-weekly.  In June 2008 U.S. News & World Report announced that it would go to a bi-weekly starting in Jan. 2009; by Nov. 2008 that plan had changed from bi-weekly to monthly.  At the very least these examples show one consequence of the economic difficulties facing the industry may be fewer covers.  Newsweek announced on March 31, 2008 that 111 staffers in New York City had accepted a buyout, and in Dec. 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported the magazine was planning staff cuts and "a major makeover" that will lead to a slimmer magazine.  The Magazine Publishers of America’s Quarterly Rate Card Revenue & Pages figures for the 3rd quarter of 2008 showed declines for perhaps 90-percent of magazines compared to the same period in 2007.  In its Nov. 23, 2008 issue the newsletter Harrington’s New Single Copy (www.nscopy.com) reported that, “The first half of 2008 was the worst for newsstand sales in at least five years, after a period of relative stable performance…  Virtually at every level of the distribution system, leaders have acknowledged that the third quarter was, if anything, even more discouraging.”  
In terms of numbers of covers, Hillary Clinton was the clear winner of the pre-primary period, appearing on at least 30 covers of domestic magazines in 2005-07.  By comparison, Obama appeared in 25 covers during this period.  All told 40 Clinton covers were found; Bill Clinton appeared on eight of those.  Looking at the 20 covers with multiple Democrats, Clinton appeared on all of them.  
Some of the early covers clearly showed Clinton as the frontrunner.  For example, The New Republic's Nov. 21, 2005 issue showed Sen. Russ Feingold as "The Hillary Slayer," the New York Times Magazine's March 12, 2006 issue had former Gov. Mark Warner as the Anti-Hillary3, and New York's May 29, 2006 issue presented former Vice President Al Gore as "The Un-Hillary."  (Interestingly none of those three individuals ran).  In its Jan. 1, 2007 issue Newsweek had already narrowed the contest down to a two-person race, Clinton vs. Obama ("The Race is On"). 

Nine covers were found featuring other Democratic candidates, of which seven showed John Edwards.  Other covers featured Democrats who did not get in the race including former Gore, Warner, Feingold and Sen. John Kerry.  The protracted Obama-Clinton race generated a number of creative covers including Newsweek's arugula-beer cover.
  The New Republic's April 9, 2008 issue ("We Have to Choose One") showed an ambiguous figure created by morphing Clinton and Obama.  Time's May 8, 2008 issue ("There Can Only Be One") tackled the same theme with a split photo approach inspired by a 2008 NBA Playoffs ad campaign.

Among Republican primary candidates there was a fairly wide distribution.  Through the end of Feb. 2008 23 McCain covers were found.  There were 18 Giuliani covers, 13 Romney, eight Huckabee, six Fred Thompson, three Brownback and one Hunter.  Despite his very vocal and active supporters, Ron Paul apparently did not manage any solo appearances on magazine covers; the closest to a Paul cover was the June 18, 2007 issue of the American Conservative ("The Ron Paul Moment") which showed Paul and Giuliani.  Among those mentioned as presidential prospects then Sen. George Allen, Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Bill Frist, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Chuck Hagel and Gov. George Pataki made covers.  Giuliani seemed to attract negative covers from all sides.  The National Review 's Aug. 7, 2006 issue (But Will It Play in Peoria?) featured a photo of Giuliani in drag, New York's March 5, 2007 used an extreme close up of Giuliani and asked simply "Him?," Harper's Aug. 2007 issue had a Steve Brodner illustration and the title "A Fate Worse than Bush," and the American Conservative's Jan. 14, 2008 issue ("I, Rudy") showed him in fascist apparel.

From late 2006 to late 2007 the possibility of a campaign by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg generated four covers.

Obama had three early magazine cover appearances coinciding with his election to the U.S. Senate.  The first national magazine cover was the October 2004 issue of Black Enterprise featuring a photograph by Brent Jones and the headline "The Next Big Thing in Politics - Barack!"  He was on Washington Monthly's November 2004 issue in a Fred Harper illustration with the headline "The Great Black Hope," sub-titled "What's Riding on Barack Obama?"  Newsweek weighed in with another early cover featuring Obama on its Dec. 27, 2004-Jan. 1, 2005 “Who’s Next” issue (headline “Seeing Purple”). 

From Jan. 2006 to Election Day, this survey found just over one hundred Obama covers on U.S. magazines.4  Obama was also shown in the majority of the 21 covers found in the pre-primary and primary period featuring multiple Democratic and Republican candidates, and he was on all but the earliest of the covers found featuring multiple Democratic primary candidates.  The Nov. 2008 issue of Harrington's New Single Copy cited above reported, “In terms of sales, the celebrity category, which had lost some of the buzz of the past five years, was looking at phenomenal sales for current issues with covers featuring the United States President-elect, Barack Obama.”  After the election dozens more Obama covers appeared.
McCain had appeared on many magazine covers during the course of his career, including several dozen during his campaign for the 2000 Republican nomination.  In 2005 and 2006 McCain was seen as a probable 2008 presidential candidate and was in the thick of debate on a number of issues and he naturally made a number of covers.  From June 2005 to Election Day, this survey found just over fifty McCain covers on U.S. magazines.  The survey found only eight covers featuring multiple Republican primary candidates, and McCain was included in four of those.  In addition to the McCain covers, in September and October 2008 there were 12 Palin covers (compared to zero Biden covers). 

General Election
The survey found 32 Obama vs. McCain general election covers.  Additionally, a couple of covers from March and April had McCain, Obama and Clinton.  The first to show the head to head match-up appears to have been the June 2008 issue of Reason
("The Cult of the Presidency").  The general election is a point in the process where some of the more specialized magazines tend to put the campaign on the cover; examples include Nature, E, and Christianity Today.  The most common approach for the general election covers is to run head shots of the two candidates.  Distinctive covers included New York's Sept. 15, 2008 cover "Swimming With Barracuda" which had a photo illustration of the presidential and vice presidential candidates and assorted others and the New Yorker's Oct. 27, 2008 issue which featured a Richard McGuire illustration of Obama, McCain, Biden and Palin fightingOnly one cover featured a third party or independent candidate, Reason’s Nov. 2008 issue “Bob Barr Talks.”
Analysis: Explaining the Imbalance
The survey found significantly more magazine covers featuring Obama than McCain.  Much has been written about media favoritism towards Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.  One factor which helps explain the numerical imbalance in Obama and McCain covers is the different paths of the Democratic and Republican primary contests.  The McCain campaign went through the period of near collapse in July 2007, which could explain fewer cover appearances, and he then went on to effectively wrap up the nomination in February.  Meanwhile the protracted and closely fought Democratic primaries continued for months, creating more opportunities for magazines to do Obama covers.  The fact that more than twice as many covers were found featuring multiple Democratic candidates as multiple Republican candidates underscores this point.
A second possible explanation is the fact that placing a celebrity on the cover may help sell magazines.  Given the diverse magazines considered in this survey it is important not to compare Obama fit the celebrity description while McCain had already “been around the block” once before.  The phenomenon of so many Palin covers appearing in such a short time tends to support the celebrity theory.   One could argue that there was not an ideological bias so much as a celebrity bias. 

The star quality of Obama and the historical nature of his candidacy very likely did cause some magazines to put him on the cover while McCain did not make the cut.  Most obviously, magazines geared to an African American audience, including Black Enterprise, Ebony, Essence, Jet and Vibe went 100 percent with Obama.  Anecdotal observations also support the notion of favoritism towards Obama.  For example, Betsy Newmark, an AP history and government teacher in Raleigh, NC, wrote about Newsweek in a May 29, 2008 posting on her “Betsy’s Page” blog: “No other person has been on the cover in the past year and a half as many times as Obama.  In the past few months, he's appeared on the cover about once a month and there have been Obama cover stories three times since May 5.  Aren't they embarrassed by their favoritism?”  Indeed a review for the entire campaign shows Newsweek ran eight Obama covers compared to four McCain covers and two Palin covers.  Time ran seven Obama covers, two McCain covers and one Palin cover.  These are fairly shocking numbers.  A number of general interest magazines such as Men’s Health and Men’s Vogue put Obama on the cover but not McCain. 
Some individual magazines and specific types of magazines appeared to show a tilt towards Obama in terms of the number of times they put him on the cover.

Overseas Portrayals
Overseas magazines picked up on the Obama craze.   Early on there were several Clinton covers.  However, in terms of the nominees, this survey only turned up one McCain cover (Der Spiegel) during the campaign versus nine for Obama.  McLean's, the Canadian newsmagazine, actually beat many American magazines in putting Obama on the cover of its Feb. 5, 2007 issue.

The most controversial cover of the 2008 cycle was the New Yorker’s July 21, 2008 issue featuring “The Politics of Fear” illustration by Barry Blitt.  Obama is shown as a Muslim wearing a turban and fist-bumping his wife, who totes a gun over her shoulder.  The Obama campaign responded with a statement from spokesman Bill Burton.  “The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create.  But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive.  And we agree."  Vanity Fair posted a parody on its website showing McCain with a walker and Cindy McCain clutching pill bottles.  The Nation’s Sept. 29, 2008 had an illustration, inspired by the New Yorker cover, showing Palin and McCain in the Oval Office.  Entertainment Weekly did a parody featuring a photo of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on its Oct. 3, 2008 issue.  Many commentators opined on the matter and a number of editorial cartoonists weighed in as well.

During the primary campaign, a number of bloggers took issue with The New Republic's May 7, 2008 Clinton cover ("The Voices in Her Head") decrying the "hysterical" portrayal of the senator from New York.

Another controversy arose over
Jill Greenberg's photography of McCain for The Atlantic in its October 2008 issue.  Greenberg, who later described herself as "a pretty hard core Democrat," described on her blog how during the shoot she used uplighting to produce unflattering images of McCain and writes how she "left his eyes red and his skin looking bad."  Later she also created some manipulated images of McCain using Photoshop.  Although the image the magazine ran is "respectful," The Atlantic had to issue an explanatory note  that stated in part, "When we contract with photographers for portraits, we don't vet them for their politics--instead, we assess their professional track records.  We had never worked with Jill Greenberg before (and, obviously, we will not work with her again)."


Between Election Day and the Inauguration there were many, many Obama covers, reflecting the historic nature of the choice and the high expectations he faces.  Time magazine's Arthur Hochstein identified the Nov. 17 cover of the New Yorker,  an illustration by Bob Staake showing the "o" in New Yorker as the moon over the Lincoln Memorial, as the top magazine cover of the year.5  Additionally, a number of magazines produced collector’s and commemorative issues.  For example Ebony’s Dec. 9 issue featured Obama’s first post-election interview (done on Nov. 13).  Essence produced a 56-page tribute with separate Barack Obama and Michelle Obama covers.  Rolling Stone’s “Barack Obama and the Triumph of Hope” had “exclusive Rolling Stone interviews and articles, over 140 pages of photos, and six of his most stirring speeches.”

1. Ben Wyskida, publicity director for The Nation, writes in a Jan. 14, 2009 e-mail:

"On average we move 170-175k a week via subscription (right now it's 172,660) and only 9-10k via newsstand. (Last week it was 9,302).  Anecdotally, the Obama covers didn't make a dent in sales for us; the Democratic Convention Preview did sell slightly better; that was our strongest Obama image of the year.

"...for an independent publication like The Nation, newsstand sales are very difficult.  We sell well in Independent bookstores and at some Barnes & Noble and Borders around the country, but generally companies that own multiple titles also pay for space and access on newsstands, and are able to secure better positions and notice for sales.  The Nation, with only the one title, may be competing for newsstand space against a company with 30 titles; independent publications like The Nation continue to look for better ways to move magazines in store.  For now though the heart of our readership is our subscribers (170-180k) and our website visitors (1 million distinct in 2008)."

2. For example the issue of The Advocate dated February 2009 was sent to subscribers starting 12/23/08 with an expected delivery date of 1/2-1/6 and was on-sale on the newsstand 1/20/09.

3. The New York Times Magazine's March 12, 2006 issue with Gov. Mark Warner on the cover was one of the odder covers.  It featured a photo shot by Alexei Hay using infrared chrome film and not processed properly.  The Times ran an explantory note in its March 15 issue.  ("The cover photograph in The Times Magazine on Sunday rendered color incorrectly for the jacket, shirt and tie worn by Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor who is a possible candidate for the presidency.  The jacket was charcoal, not maroon; the shirt was light blue, not pink; the tie was dark blue with stripes, not maroon...The film that waused can cause color to shift, and the processing altered them further; the change escaped notice because of a misunderstanding by the editors.")  See also Gabriel Sherman.  "Why Is This Man Laughing?  First Glimpse of Handsome Gov. Warner Bears Slight Resemblance to Mr. Ed."  March 20, 2006, The New York Observer. 

The American Society of Magazine Editors actually created an "Obama" category in its 2009 Best Cover Contest (for the period from June 1, 2008 to May 30, 2009).  On Oct. 14, 2009 the ASME announced the July 10-24, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone featuring a Peter Yang photo of Obama as not only the "Best Obama" cover but also as the “Cover of the Year” from among ten categories.

5. Time magazine produced 50 "The Top 10 Everything of 2008" lists.  Hochstein wrote of Staake's Nov. 17 New Yorker cover that, "It is beautifully rendered.  Simply spectacular."  Other campaign covers in Hochstein's top 10 were Rolling Stone's July 10 cover (Peter Yang photo of Obama), Entertainment Weekly's Oct. 3 parody of the New Yorker "Politics of Fear" cover, and Mad magazine's Sept. 2008 cover (Alfred E. Obama).

Complete Listing [very big .rtf file-1Mb] 
2008 General Campaign Themes  |  Ds and Rs Multi 
Democrats Multi  |  Democrats Themes  |  Obama  | 
Democratic Primary Candidates
Republicans Multi  |  Republicans Themes  |  McCain  |  Palin  | 
Republican Primary Candidates
General Election  |  Post Election  |  International  |  Wives  Governing - 2009

How Newsweek Did Its Convention Covers
Joe Heroun's Observations on Some of The New Republic's '08 Campaign Covers
Zina Saunders on the Jan. 2009 Cover of The Progressive
Early Feature Articles

"On the Cover: W, The Dems & the 2004 Campaign"
"Cover-ing The Campaign: The 2000 Presidential Campaign As Portrayed on Magazine Covers"
Copyright © 2008, 2009  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action