How Politicians Ran for Office Before Internet, TV, and Radio
The rousing stump speech
Thanks to social media and 24/7 news coverage, we know the stump speech of today’s candidate backward and forward minutes after he or she delivers it. But why do they call it a “stump speech”? Because in the olden days, candidates, particularly those campaigning in rural areas, actually found a tree stump from which to amplify their voices and deliver their message to assembled voters. But a good, solid, on-point stump speech is still as critical today as it was in the 1800s, even if the delivery method is all about maximum exposure on the Internet. But hey, a six-second Vine clip sure beats the vine of poison ivy wrapped around that old fallen tree.
Shaking hands and (yes) kissing babies
Today, pressing the flesh is a rite of passage after speeches and campaign events -- but it’s mostly done for the benefit of the camera. 150 years ago, the average American knew next to nothing about candidates or their positions on issues and still relied on their senses to make decisions. So if a politician turned up in town, it was typically a major event, not just an opportunity for cynicism or protest. That meant everyone who had the ability would turn out to put his or her own eyes on a candidate -- and then judge them by their handshake. As for baby kissing, historians trace it back to the age of Andrew Jackson, who used other populist events like parades and barbecues to increase voter turnout and humanize the candidate, which is way easier to do when they’re covered in meat juice.
The whistle-stop train tour
Once train travel opened up America’s frontiers in the mid-1800s, delivery of the stump speech was streamlined by the use of whistle-stop train tours. Since train stations served as the hub of American life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a candidate could hit several small towns in a day, stand on the platform of an observation car or private coach, and give a quick summary of his speech to the hundreds or even thousands of people and fun barn animals who gathered for the spectacle.
In the 1800s, newspapers were primarily partisan arms, and in the decades surrounding the Civil War, sectionalism ran rampant, with multiple factions battling over westward expansion, economic turmoil, and the sanctity of the Union. Every position on the political spectrum usually published its own stand-alone newspaper too, openly supporting a candidate and denigrating its rivals in a bitter and often inflammatory manner. It wasn’t until around the turn of the century that Americans began viewing newspapers as standard bearers of journalistic objectivity, and the advent of news magazines, radio, and TV in the 1920s and '30s put what many thought was the final nail in the coffin of these partisan outlets. Until the 1990s, that is, when Fox News and MSNBC redefined what it meant to unashamedly stake out specific ends of the political spectrum.
It’s no surprise that in the heyday of editorial cartooning in the mid 1800s, the best campaign posters emulated the look and feel of these works of journalistic art. Like posters, they often provided the only chance for the American public to get a look at candidates. But it was in the hands of legendary cartoonists like Thomas Nast that presidential elections were won and lost. In 1864, when George McClellan and the Democrats ran on a platform of negotiating peace with the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican campaign printed millions of copies of Nast’s “Useless War” cartoon and distributed them around the country. And in 1868, Ulysses S. Grant credited his victory to the “sword of Sheridan,” a commanding Union general, “and the pen of Nast,” who published a depiction of Grant steering the “good Ship Union” through war and peace while being challenged and naysayed by those around him.
We think that live music today is more popular than ever, but prior to recorded sound, moving pictures, and near-universal literacy, in-person musical performance was the primary method of storytelling. The campaign song -- usually new lyrics set to an established tune like “Yankee Doodle” or “Dixie” -- is another political tool ascribed to Andrew Jackson’s everyman rise in 1824 and 1828, and it remained critical to campaign success throughout the 19th century. Case in point: “Battle Cry of Freedom,” written to rally the Union around Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, proved so popular that at one point its publisher was running 14 printing presses at one time and still couldn’t keep up with demand for the sheet music, 700,000 copies of which were eventually sold. That would have earned the song a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, had it been around 100 years earlier -- and had anybody cared in the middle of the Civil War.
The best campaign song, of course, is one that morphs into an instantly recognizable slogan. Take “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” for example. The upstart Whig Party tried to topple the ruling Democrats in 1840 by running rugged Indiana frontiersman William Henry Harrison for president against wealthy New Yorker and longtime bureaucrat Martin Van Buren. The song, written by a Zanesville, Ohio jeweler, celebrated Harrison’s victory over Tecumseh and a band of Shawnee Indians at the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe (and his running mate, John Tyler, too). But it became so popular -- newspapers of the time compared it to the “Marseillaise” -- that Whigs around the country used “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” as a rallying cry for Harrison, the first man-of-the-people, “log cabin and hard cider candidate” in American politics. And guess what? Once the votes were tallied, Harrison trounced the incumbent Van Buren, riding a confusing four-word phrase to victory.
Before newspapers came to widespread prominence and cheap availability at the end of the 19th century, campaign posters were the primary means of visual representation for candidates. Most featured iconic portraits with patriotic imagery -- take Zachary Taylor mounting his regal steed and exhorting Justice, Union, and Peace in 1848, for instance. In the Gilded Age of the 1870s and ’80s, an injection of color came to the campaign trail, with many posters featuring intricate designs, fantastical scenes of prosperity and harmony, and typography that today’s graphic designers would kill for. Even in our digital age, the importance of the campaign poster hasn’t subsided -- just think back to how many times you saw Barack Obama’s iconic “HOPE” poster in 2008 and 2012. The only difference? Today, those images immediately turn into memes.
A variety of factors -- immigration, Reconstruction, a booming native-born population -- led to the number of American voters swelling immensely in the 1800s. And as it is today, simply getting voters to the polls was the number-one goal of political parties. Sure, the tactics were a little more extreme back then -- large crowds of advocates rounding up eligible citizens and escorting them to the polls, bald-faced bribes to voters, and ballot fraud was common, particularly in big party-controlled cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston. But the efforts worked: voter turnout topped 70% (in some cases even 80%) in every presidential election between 1856 to 1900. In 1896, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio even saw 95% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Short of cash handouts or Facebook likes or free barbecue for every ballot cast, it’s unlikely that level of voter participation will ever be achieved in America again.
A lot has changed when it comes to political campaigning -- but a lot has also remained the same. So next time you find yourself complaining about how terrible all the candidates are, remember that their job isn’t easy. And politicians, remember, barbecue -- serve up some good ’cue and Americans will come running.