2020: a campaign like no other?
This election cycle has been unusual, given the moratorium on large public gatherings, rallies and in-person organizing. Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden are making their case to voters through non-traditional methods, such as virtual events, mail-based outreach and creative social media. It may seem like the 2020 campaign is an outlier in American history; however, presidential campaigns have always adapted their communication tactics to reflect shifting cultural conditions and available technology.
While Americans now expect major party presidential candidates to crisscross the country in search of the magic combination of electoral votes to secure a win, nominees for the presidency haven’t always relied upon speeches given before large crowds to transmit their ideas and positions.
For the first century of American history, most presidential candidates didn’t actively campaign for the office at all. While the Jacksonian era is associated with the expansion of white male suffrage and the creation of political parties in the United States, Andrew Jackson never solicited votes for his election. However, he did believe that voters should know his positions concerning the most pressing issues of the day. In 1824, he wrote a number of letters, composed for public release, that outlined his most salient opinions. As president, Jackson remained mute during his 1832 reelection cycle, adopting the belief that sitting presidents should not engage in demeaning behavior such as electioneering. Jackson declared, “I meddle not with elections, I leave the people to make their own President.”
By the middle of the nineteenth century, expectations were changing. Although presidential candidates were not supposed to actively seek the office, they were expected to engage with voters about the most relevant policy issues. In 1840, party operatives cajoled Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to make two public tours. His opponent, Martin Van Buren, opted to draft long letters to explain his stances. Harrison defeated the embattled Van Buren, but only served one month in office before his death.
After Harrison, several unsuccessful nineteenth century candidates who stumped for the presidency, such as Stephen Douglas and Horace Greeley, led to the belief that giving speeches to voters was a losing strategy, especially since their opponents remained at home. This led to a retrenchment of in-person campaigning for a period of time. And in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes refused to even vote for himself, contending that “Silence is the only safety.”
Despite the expectation of restrained personal ambition, and a seeming lack of results, there was still a countervailing demand for presidential candidates to engage in some type of public exposure. Political institutions were changing. The presidency was increasing in perceived authority compared to Congress. Furthermore, the personality of individual candidates, as opposed to faceless party organizations, was becoming more relevant to voters.
In 1880, Ohioan James Garfield appeared to solve the problem. While remaining at his farm in Mentor, he spoke to citizens who wished to visit him and listen to his short speeches. He was joined by farmers, businessmen, college students, and even women, who could not vote in the presidential election. Garfield used a small structure behind his house as a mini-campaign headquarters, arranging a schedule for various groups to call upon him. Over 15,000 people visited Garfield before the election. Mimicking a festival vibe, there was often musical performances or poets to entertain the well-wishers.
In 1888, Benjamin Harrison followed suit, as well as William McKinley in 1896. McKinley spoke to over 700,000 supporters from his home in Canton, Ohio. The popularity of McKinley’s strategy came to be known as the “front porch campaign.” Warren Harding continued the practice decades later during the 1920 election, even involving his wife in the campaign. Before selfies were popular, Florence Harding reportedly posed for 10,000 photographs in front of their house. Nonetheless, it wasn’t all fun and games. Before the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment, protestors from the National Woman’s Party filled Harding’s front yard, demanding that he exert more influence in the women’s suffrage ratification process.
1932 marked the first time a sitting president, Herbert Hoover, engaged in a nationwide campaign along with his challenger, Franklin Roosevelt. Since then, we have grown accustomed to presidential candidates in perpetual motion, traveling across the country to solicit votes, money, and goodwill.
The necessary reliance in 2020 upon newly available technologies, like Zoom and digital organizing tools, is reminiscent of earlier presidential campaigns. During the raucous 1912 campaign, Woodrow Wilson eschewed barnstorming the country and instead chose to utilize the telegraph as a way to communicate his platform. In 1924, incumbent Calvin Coolidge adopted the radio as a more efficient way to share his views, rather than speeches before large audiences.
This year’s more stationary campaign might bend recent norms, yet history shows us it is far from unprecedented. Instead, the circuitous past of American political campaigns demonstrates that presidential candidates have always attempted to adapt their voter outreach strategies to reflect prevailing governing expectations, perceived norms of conduct, and socio-cultural conditions. In that respect, this year will be no different.
Dr. Colleen J. Shogan is senior vice president of the White House Historical Association and director of the David Rubenstein Center for White House History. She also teaches American politics at Georgetown University.
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