The Wilson Quarterly

"The people have nominated you without any pledges or engagements of any sort … and they want you to do nothing at present but allow yourself to be elected,” the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant told Abraham Lincoln in 1860. “Make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises.” As Americans grumble, in what has become a quadrennial ritual, that the presidential campaign is too long, too nasty, and too frivolous, they should consider whether they would really prefer a return to the 19th-century rules of the game that are so often held up as an alternative.

A look back at the evolution of the presidential campaign since the early days of the Republic highlights the remarkable democratic achievements of the last two centuries. America’s presidential campaign process works. It sifts through candidates, facilitates a continent-wide conversation, and, most important, bestows legitimacy on the winner. Presidential campaigns are intense, long, and costly because they are popular, consequential, and continental in scope. Most aspects of the campaigns that Americans hate reflect the democracy we love.

The evolution of the campaign has been a process of endlessly revisiting questions about the nature of American democracy that have been with us since the nation’s founding. Since George Washington coolly retreated to Mount Vernon to await his inevitable selection by a handful of elite presidential electors in 1789, America’s center of political gravity has shifted from the self-chosen few to the democratic masses. The elite maneuverings of the early Republic gave way beginning in the 1830s to nominating convention intrigues, which were replaced a half-century ago by today’s familiar primary-caucus hijinks. American politics evolved from elite based to boss based to people based, from nominating individuals who had mastered America’s politics of privilege to selecting those who could master party politics, to anointing today’s masters of media messaging.

Originally, most Americans agreed with Representative William Lowndes of South Carolina, who declared in 1822 that the presidency was not “an office to be either solicited or declined.” Candidates stood silently, relatively undemocratically, for election, largely avoiding contact with the people, like kings in waiting. A little more than a century later, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strategists advised him to mount a markedly different kind of effort: “You are you,” he said, and “have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour.” Forty years further on, the activist campaign threatened to become too insulated and choreographed. In 1972, journalist Theodore White said he could have covered Richard M. Nixon’s reelection effort by “staying home and watching television with the rest of the people—which was the way the president wanted it.” In becoming democratized, bringing the people in, the process also became dependent on the news media and political consultants, which inevitably meant to some degree keeping the people out.

Standard histories of the presidential campaign emphasize a few transformative elections, such as William Henry Harrison’s successful protopopulist “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” bid in 1840 and William McKinley’s cleverly merchandized mass spectacle in 1896, suggesting that the nature of the campaign followed an almost inevitable course, in a series of sudden developmental bursts. Actually, it evolved slowly and imperfectly. Candidates’ prominence in the campaign proved inversely proportional to party strength but directly related to the presidency’s power; strong parties constrained candidates during the 19th century, while the presidency’s subsequent expansion empowered them. Communication and transportation advances—railroads, the telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet—created the necessary conditions for change, but public attitudes had to shift in order to legitimize the innovations, and strategies for applying these innovations had to emerge.

The presidential campaign has evolved through four phases: republican, democratic, populist, and electronic. In each, the candidates have juggled dozens of roles but the voters have experienced the contenders largely in one defining, dominant mode: as icons during the republican phase; as actors during the democratic phase; as activists, even superheroes, during the populist phase; and now, during the electronic phase, as images. Each era has pivoted around a central dilemma regarding the people’s role in American democracy’s most defining act, electing the president of the United States.

The Republican Phase: Passive Icons

Americans have long been ambivalent about electoral politics at its loudest and messiest, or what Hubert Humphrey called “armpit politics.” While responding to the passion, they crave dignified elections. In the first few contests for America’s highest office, the candidates were almost completely passive. Campaigns were orderly procedures for designating society’s obvious, virtuous, natural leaders. Candidates functioned as icons, ideal representations of the perfect gentleman and leader.

The word “candidate,” from the Latin for “white,” candidus, evoked the white togas embodying the supposed purity of ancient Rome’s senators. Candidates were to “stand” for election, not “run.” George Washington’s impassive wait for the call of the people at Mount Vernon during the first presidential election epitomized these monarchically tinged yet republican ideals.

The campaigns of the republican phase broadcast mixed messages about the people’s role in selecting leaders. The Founders feared both “mobocracy” and dictatorship. The Electoral College was a filter, put in place on the assumption that the presidential electors would be chosen by state legislators rather than voters. The electors would select the president after a period of dispassionate deliberation. This structure partly reflected the Founders’ respect for state prerogatives, and partly reflected their elitism. They maintained power for the few by rooting the decision in the consent of the governed without depending excessively on their judgment. Similarly, passive candidates were insulated from the people—and from substantive democratic debate. Each candidate’s virtues were assumed to be known and would speak for themselves.

The Democratic Phase: Party Rule

Washington’s successors lacked his exalted standing, and, therefore, the luxury of remaining completely aloof. The Revolution, moreover, democratized America in ways the Founders had not imagined. The old social hierarchies and habits of deference rapidly crumbled, while vigorous economic growth and urbanization unleashed new political forces. Beginning in the 1820s, the Jacksonian democratic revolution, with its powerful political parties, universal white male suffrage, democratic ethos, and charismatic leader in the person of war hero General Andrew Jackson, brought a personality-based mass excitement to politics. Many political restrictions were swept away. One result was that voters in most states now chose presidential electors directly, bypassing state legislators. Presidential politics became increasingly national in scope, as federal issues such as internal improvements and the future of slavery eclipsed state concerns. Candidates found it increasingly difficult to stay above the fray (some were happy to dive in), and traditionalists, as a writer in The Nashville Union put it in 1852, viewed “every innovation upon the received usages of our fathers, in so important a matter as the presidential election,” as an assault on the Republic itself.

By 1840, the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison felt compelled to explain that “appearing among my fellow citizens” was the “only way to disprove” his rivals’ charge that he was a “caged simpleton.” His efforts were modest by modern standards but significant for the nominee of a party that in many ways represented the old privileged order. He attended rallies celebrating his exploits in battles against the Indians and in the War of 1812, and usually campaigned against campaigning—even as he campaigned. In adopting popular Jacksonian tactics to mobilize the masses by building a colorful campaign around Harrison’s wartime heroics, the Whigs bowed to the fact that the democratic sensibility had become all-American—parties had to campaign vigorously and melodramatically to win.

In the 19th century, parties poured tremendous effort into mobilizing the masses. Bosses such as New York State’s Thurlow Weed developed intricate structures and effective methods for securing grassroots party loyalty and turning out the vote. Election days were mass carnivals, capping months of squabbling, pamphleteering, parading, speechifying, mudslinging, and no-holds-barred editorializing in party-controlled newspapers. After Jackson, party leaders most prized “available” candidates, meaning pliable, electable politicians. Particular campaign issues and the candidate’s personal virtues paled before “one broad, paramount issue,” a writer in the Democratic Review magazine confessed in 1844: “Which of the two great leading parties shall be placed in power?”

No longer dignified, passive icons, candidates were becoming loyal party actors, sometimes speaking, sometimes stumping, always following the party script. This development produced the parade of third-rate presidents who helped America stumble into the Civil War: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. Once required chiefly to solemnly express their reluctance to seek power, each party’s nominees were now expected to submit acceptance letters binding them to party platforms through increasingly elaborate policy statements. In 1876, Samuel Tilden’s detailed treatise of more than 4,000 words affirmed his Democratic loyalties while giving his endorsements of civil service and currency reform his own personal twist.

State and local party bosses usually picked candidates at their own levels; the national parties then hosted elaborate congresses to nominate standard-bearers and define the party platform. These colorful, often chaotic, quadrennial conventions were way stations between republican elitist politics and today’s mass politics. Bosses lobbied in their clubby “smoke-filled rooms” for their “favorite son” candidates and hammered out party positions. The people were not invited. Still, the conventions’ democratic chaos reflected America’s march away from hierarchy toward populism. Even bosses had to keep voters happy.

Bent on nominating dependable party loyalists, the conventions frequently became deadlocked, and ended up picking many last-minute dark horses. A one-term Whig congressman from Illinois in a new party founded by the antislavery giants William Henry Seward and Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln followed the democratic phase’s textbook dark-horse strategy in 1860. He was not most Republicans’ first choice: “Our policy, then,” he said, “is to give no offense to others—leave them in a mood to come to us if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.”

The traditional restrictions on nominees frustrated Lincoln. Having orated his way into prominence during his 1858 Senate election debates with Stephen A. Douglas, during the 1860 presidential campaign Lincoln was “bored, bored badly,” his law partner William Herndon later reported. Campaigns were still thought of mostly as battles waged across fixed lines; at a time when party loyalties ran deep, they were more about mobilizing partisans than wooing the undecided or the few independents.

The campaign during the democratic phase was more monologue than dialogue. In 1824, Andrew Jackson vowed to declare his opinion “upon any political or national question . . . about which the country feels an interest.” The good general was declaring, not learning from or adjusting to public opinion. Similarly, “active” candidates stumped—an expression derived from the custom of speechifying from atop a tree stump—in order to be seen and heard better, not to better see and hear for themselves. But many Americans were beginning to wonder if the candidates and the people needed to be in conversation, and if so, how dynamic the exchange should be. “A live lion in good voice, will produce … a far greater and more lasting effect by being seen and heard,” than all the campaign biographies “which can be written,” one Whig enthusiast wrote in 1852, justifying General Winfield Scott’s active approach—and demanding more.

The Populist Phase: Engaged Activists

Beginning in the late 19th century, a host of changes, from industrialization and the growth of cities to advances in transportation and communications, made American politics more populist, and the presidency more central in both governing and electoral politics. Candidates were no longer mere actors but activists, more independent of party, less regional in orientation, more visible in the campaign. Stumping, whistle-stopping, and, later, prop-stopping on airplanes, they became less gentlemanly, more independent, and more aggressive. Candidates had to prove themselves worthy of commanding what Theodore Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit.”

After Franklin Roosevelt helped make the United States into a superpower, turning the White House rather than the Capitol into the nation’s focal point and nerve center, Americans wanted these activists to be superheroes who dominated their parties and the national news.

With the empowered president speaking to people in their living rooms via radio, then television, the office became more powerful yet more personal, requiring candidates who were charismatic and eloquent yet accessible.

Nominees had been interacting with voters ever more intensely throughout the 19th century. Defending the traditional reticence of candidates even as technology and political necessity increasingly made it anachronistic, rivals and editorialists denounced as undignified and unprecedented the stumping tours of William Henry Harrison in 1840, Henry Clay in 1844, Winfield Scott in 1852, Stephen Douglas in 1860, Horatio Seymour in 1868, Horace Greeley in 1872, James G. Blaine in 1884, and William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Pressured to be more active but concerned that stumping would betray too great an appetite for power, James A. Garfield in 1880 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 mounted so-called front porch campaigns. In this compromise approach, the candidates used various all-American settings in their hometowns as venues for greeting delegations of supporters from across the country. Harrison kept up the illusion of lofty indifference to power by appearing pleasantly surprised, again and again, as 300,000 people in 110 delegations visited his Indiana residence.

The 1896 campaign consolidated and advanced many innovations. During his 18,000-mile, 600-speech campaign, William Jennings Bryan, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska and the nominee of both the Democrats and the Populists, insisted that voters had “a right to know where I stand on public questions.” His opponent, Governor William McKinley of Ohio, welcomed 750,000 visitors from 30 states to his front porch in Canton. Meanwhile, McKinley’s campaign manager, business magnate Mark Hanna, modernized presidential campaigning. Hanna treated voters like consumers to be swayed, not party members to be mobilized, creating dozens of special-interest groups, deploying hundreds of targeted speakers, raising millions of dollars, and distributing trainloads of pamphlets. Hanna “advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine,” remarked Theodore Roosevelt. Subsequently, Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, in particular, showed that they too could be the stars of the national show, running energetic, charismatic campaigns—with radio added to the mix starting in 1924.

In this populist phase, the debate about political debate continued. The principle of democratic interaction, encouraging conversations between voters and candidates, was already established. Especially after opinion polling arose in the 1930s, candidates became increasingly responsive, taking voter feelings and feedback into account when making policy stands or deciding which issues to emphasize.

With candidates now running to be prime minister as well as king, they had to publicize their policy stands in addition to demonstrating their good character. Most politicians could not resist mudslinging, just as voters, despite their dismay, could not resist being swayed by it. And as reporters became the source Americans went to first for information about the campaign, debate intensified between those who valued coverage of “the issues” and those who wanted horse race updates. As pressure increased, perhaps inevitably, to emphasize the horse race aspect, the “media,” as the press would soon be called, would increasingly be regarded not so much as an instrument of responsible decision making as a wellspring of vulgar distractions that often lowered the tenor of campaigns.

The Electronic Phase: Tailored Images

The television revolution ushered in campaigning’s electronic era. The TV studio replaced the stump as the foremost means of reaching the masses. Some candidates and most consultants dreamed of a sanitized campaign free of crowds—just the opposite of what their 19th-century counterparts had sought. Rising professionalization and fears of unscripted moments combined with growing faith in technology. Richard Nixon’s aide H. R. Haldeman proclaimed in 1968, “The reach of the individual campaigner doesn’t add up to diddly-squat in votes.”

Media markets, newspaper deadlines, TV broadcast times, and sound bites now marked the campaign’s rhythms—though the requirement to press the flesh remained an important check on the televised campaign, especially in traditional bastions of grassroots politicking such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Consultants, advertising experts, and the all-important bagmen and -women needed to finance expensive airtime replaced the party bosses and precinct workers of yesteryear. These professionals made the campaigns slicker and more soulless. A Time magazine cover story in 1988 deemed the contest between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis the “Battle of the Handlers.”

As the social upheaval of the 1960s manifested itself politically in proliferating state primaries and caucuses, the bosses’ power to select presidential nominees diminished and party discipline suffered. Independent gunslingers with enough popularity—and money—could win the nomination and take over the party apparatus. A peanut farmer turned one-term Georgia governor could dazzle the Democratic Party and win the presidency in 1976; a movie star could seize the governor’s mansion in California in 1966 and then the White House in 1980. Winning candidates emerged less beholden to party powers. Campaigns were no longer quests to emphasize a candidate’s iconic virtue or party loyalty but to project an appealing image. In this electronic era, smooth talkers such as John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama dominated elections with what George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff John Sununu called the “see-me-feel-me-touch-me” campaign.

Televised debates became one of the modern campaign’s defining rituals. When competing for the nomination, candidates usually appeared at awkwardly staged televised forums, the crowd on stage getting steadily smaller as would-be nominees fell out of favor (or funding) one by one. During the general campaign, debates frequently were dramatic turning points, most famously in the Kennedy-Nixon encounter of 1960. In 1976, Gerald Ford stumbled during a debate with Jimmy Carter, declaring Eastern Europe “free” even though the Soviet Union still dominated the region. In 1980, Ronald Reagan genially shrugged off Carter’s criticisms, chuckling “There you go again.” In 2008, the 47-year-old Barack Obama appeared cooler, even more mature, than his increasingly erratic 72-year-old opponent, John McCain.

Television commercials offered equally powerful moments. In 1964, the “Daisy” commercial used a little girl counting flower petals to illustrate Democrats’ charge that Republican Barry Goldwater might bring about Armageddon by starting a nuclear war. In 1988, a political action committee with no formal ties to George H. W. Bush or the Republican Party maligned Democratic nominee Dukakis for furloughing the murderer Willie Horton, who had gone on to kill again.

Mushrooming campaign budgets reflected the greater effort required to get anything noticed across America’s continental expanse. Candidates competed against sports and sitcoms for attention, not just against one another. The costs were high, but considering that McDonald’s spent about $2 billion on advertising in 2008, the campaigns’ $1 billion outlays for advertising in the general election that year appeared a reasonable price to pay for democracy. True, the process of raising money risked corrupting candidates or at least draining their time and energy. But in an advanced capitalist country, winning the “invisible primary,” demonstrating the ability before any votes were cast to build support and raise money, became a critical test of political viability. Moreover, given America’s strong libertarian streak and constitutional protections, no expert had figured out how to insulate Democrats or Republicans from the indignities and other costs of fundraising.

Americans continued to raise concerns about campaigns’ utility and authenticity, with complaints intensifying about the tone and length of electoral battles. Candidates appeared too dependent on consultants and too burdened by fundraising. Presidents often became consumed by reelection plans by their third year in office, and at the start of their fourth year, primaries and caucuses loomed. Yet despite all the complaints, turnout in presidential elections was rising, topping 60 percent of eligible voters in 2008 after going as low as 49 percent in 1996.

It is not yet clear whether a new “virtual” phase has replaced the electronic campaign. Following the historical pattern, there has been a time lag between the Internet’s development and its emergence as an important campaigning tool. Initially, the Internet simply extended the media-intensive televised campaign, offering another avenue for commercials and information characterized by the great American political carnival’s classic mix of education and entertainment. During the uncertainty in November and December 2000 over the outcome of the George W. Bush–Al Gore contest, traffic on Internet news and campaign sites surged.

Internet enthusiasts such as political consultant Joe Trippi and media impresario Arianna Huffington believed that Barack Obama’s use of the Web in 2008 revolutionized campaigning. So far, the 2012 campaign has been even more dependent on online advertising, punditry, and fundraising. It has demonstrated the best and worst of the Web, improving candidate communication and voter education while also encouraging harsh blog and advertising attacks and generally adding to the noise.

While it will take more election cycles to clarify whether the process has entered a virtual phase, the money muddle persists. Despite the hype about President Obama’s online fundraising, much of his nearly $750 million war chest in 2008 came from the traditional big-money sources that have fueled both parties. The Supreme Court’s decision striking down limits on independent political expenditures, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), has widened the channel for big-money political action committees to pour out ads and other forms of political advocacy, especially negative commercials.

Many of the historical dilemmas about the nationwide courting ritual we call the presidential campaign remain unresolved. Are voters fools—do they get by with what political scientist Samuel Popkin calls “low information rationality,” picking up random, disconnected cues about the candidates in the same manner as when they go shopping for a new refrigerator? Or do they choose the leader of the world’s superpower after more careful deliberation? Is it possible for a candidate to communicate with 310 million distracted citizens effectively? How can Americans reconcile the dueling job descriptions of a president trying to be both prime minister and king, peddling policies and personality? Do the most qualified candidates win campaigns? And if not, why not?

Many of these questions reflect the questioner’s opening assumptions or end vision. Like a patient on the Freudian couch, the presidential campaign has many issues that were not worked out in the nation’s infancy and remain unresolved. This state of affairs fuels perpetual grumbling, with yearnings for a mythic golden age. Campaigns, like so many aspects of even the most workable democracy, are human improvisations balancing competing values. We will never be fully satisfied with them.

Fortunately, American campaigns usually end happily. Inaugurations provide the ultimate vindication of the process and closure for the nation, no matter how long, tense, or, tight a race might be. Even in 2000, once a Supreme Court decision made George W. Bush the winner, Americans accepted their new leader. At the inauguration, attended by Vice President Gore, Bush’s bitter rival, the transfer of power and legitimacy was seamless.

Yes, the modern campaign is excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part obnoxious reality TV show. But like automotive crash tests, tough campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability while revealing the candidate’s character to the nation. “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s political guru. “Whoever you are, eventually people find out.”

Whatever nostalgia there may be for the brass bands and legendary leaders of yesteryear, few Americans wish to return to the days when bosses ruled, candidates cowered, women and blacks did not vote, and the white men who did had little or no contact with their potential leaders and limited information about them. In today’s extraordinary and extended quadrennial democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million peacefully chooses a leader who arrives in office with unquestioned legitimacy. As Reagan said during his costly, nasty, lengthy—but successful—1984 reelection campaign, “It’s a good idea—and it’s the American way.”

* * * 

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University, in Montreal. He is the author of See How They Ran: The Changing Role of Presidential Candidates (1991, rev. ed. 1997) and other books. His new book, Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism, will be published this fall. This essay is based on his introduction to the revised History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008 (2011), which he edited.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Obama for America

Read Next

How to bring back the Constitution