From Herman Cain’s cowboy hat to Stephen Colbert’s super-PAC fun pack to binders, Big Bird and bayonets, objects became the visual sound bites of the 2012 election. Perhaps because there was a dearth of ideas, politics watchers and Internet mememakers seemed to focus more on things than in any previous campaign. So we thought it only appropriate to create our version of the BBC–British Museum series A History of the World in 100 Objects to tell the story of the election. The pages that follow show the real thing: actual pieces of history, often given to us by the candidates themselves. Rick Perry lent us his Stars-and-Stripes cowboy boots, Jon Huntsman his beat-up briefcase, Rick Santorum his dog-eared pocket Constitution. Michele Bachmann sent the suit she wore on the day she won the Iowa straw poll. Saturday Night Live lent us the dentures Jason Sudeikis wears to flash Joe Biden’s smile. The president of an Ohio charity sent us a soup pot that Paul Ryan cleaned—or recleaned—during an impromptu drop-by. Congressman Darrell Issa lent us the gavel he used during the congressional hearing about security in Libya. And the Republican National Committee let us photograph the empty chair that famously shared the stage with Clint Eastwood.
Richard Stengel is the managing editor of TIME.