(The following was written by Julie Miller, Barbara Bair and Michelle Krowl, historians in the Library’s Manuscript Division, for the January/February 2017 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
Presidential candidates have used popular culture to promote their campaigns for nearly 200 years.
Today’s political candidates can reach millions of people – on a 24/7 basis – in ways their predecessors could only dream of.
American presidential campaigns from 1789 through the 1820s were different from modern ones in almost every way. Presidential candidates thought it was undignified to campaign. Political parties were embryonic and in flux – nothing like the organizational powerhouses they are today. Before the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 there was no mass electorate. In most states, legislatures, not citizens, chose presidential electors. Enslaved people, free women, and free propertyless men – constituting most of the adult population at the time – were denied the vote.
Throughout this period, however, both an electorate and campaign machinery began to develop. As Americans moved west and into cities, states began to drop their property requirements for voting. Citizens gradually replaced state legislatures as voters in presidential elections. Political parties evolved from informal “factions” into effective organizations. By the early 1830s, cheap newspapers, known as the “penny press,” allied themselves with political parties, and a growing network of roads, canals and railroads began to carry political information nationwide.
By the Jacksonian era and the elections immediately following, presidential candidates still let their surrogates do most of their campaigning for them. As the franchise continued to expand to include more working-class and propertyless male voters, campaigns involved greater popular participation. The presidential election process was also increasingly competitive and campaign posters began to appear.
In the 1836 presidential election, the Whig Party chose former military commander William Henry Harrison of Ohio to challenge Democrat Martin Van Buren, the incumbent vice president. A past New York governor, senator and secretary of state, Van Buren was a consummate politician. It was during the 1836 campaign that the donkey –that faithful beast of burden who could also be an ornery, strong-willed opponent – emerged as the symbol of the Democratic Party. In his 1870s illustrations, political cartoonist Thomas Nast would associate the elephant with the Republican Party, which succeeded the Whig Party.
The presidential campaign of 1840 is often called the first “modern” grassroots campaign. It was also one that further solidified the two-party system of the time – Whigs and Democrats. The campaign was a rematch between Harrison and Van Buren. This time Harrison prevailed. The son of an aristocratic Virginia family, Harrison was nonetheless depicted as a western folk hero. That image was in keeping with the party’s theme of “Log Cabin and Hard Cider Democracy” and Harrison’s frontier status as the first governor of Indiana territory.
Harrison gained fame at the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, part of a military campaign to suppress a confederation of Indians loyal to the Shawnee leaders Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh. With southerner John Tyler of Virginia as Harrison’s vice presidential running mate, one of the most famous campaign slogans of all time emerged: “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” Campaign souvenirs of all types proliferated, as did commercial products such as Tippecanoe Tobacco and Tippecanoe Soap. Political hype was high and campaigns became popular entertainment. The campaign song emerged, pairing political lyrics with popular tunes.
By the election of 1860, parades, banners and music were part of the political landscape, as were newspapers that openly supported political parties. Advances in printing technology by the mid-19th century allowed Americans to express their political sympathies through their choice of cigars and stationery. Cigar box labels in 1860 included images of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and his democratic opponent, Stephen A. Douglas. For those who might have heard of “Honest Old Abe” and the “Little Giant” but had never seen their likenesses in print, the cigar box label introduced the candidates’ faces to the public.
Political buttons touting presidential candidates increased in popularity during the 19th century. Metal campaign buttons were available in 1860, but the election of 1896 saw the first use of the mass-produced, pin-backed, metal buttons. These became ubiquitous and collectible in 20th-century presidential campaigns and remain so today.
The electorate continued to expand. In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to male citizens “regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women nationwide the right to vote. The first election in which all American women could vote was a match between two Ohioans – Democratic Governor James M. Cox and Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding, who prevailed. Campaigns reached out to the ladies, reminding them to do their civic duty and vote.
The advent of film and radio in the early 20th century, followed by television in the early 1950s, provided even larger audiences for political campaigns. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign for president was the first to run a television advertisement. The black-and-white ad featured cartoon characters singing “I like Ike, You like Ike, Everybody likes Ike for President.”
A decade later, television ads would become more dramatic, with Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” ad against Barry Goldwater. Created by media consultant Tony Schwartz, whose collection is housed at the Library, the ad featured a child counting daisy petals, followed by a countdown to a nuclear explosion. “ These are the stakes,” warned Johnson. The spot only ran once but remains one of the most memorable in the annals of campaign ads. Negative ads continue to be a mainstay of political campaigns today.
In the post-war era, Americans took to the new interstates in their cars and soon bumper stickers proliferated. Later in the 20th century, personalized or “vanity” license plates began promoting candidates.
As it had a century earlier, technological development at the turn of the 21st century – namely the internet – ushered in a new model of political campaigning. The web also allows the Library a new means of documenting modern campaigns. Since 2000, the Library has archived websites related to the U.S. presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections.
Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate, was a big proponent of the “information superhighway,” but Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to harness the power of social media. His use of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began in early 2007. On the eve of the 2008 election, Obama had more than 1 million “friends” on Facebook – significantly more than his opponent, John McCain. By the 2012 presidential campaign, both Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, were actively campaigning on social media.
Use of Twitter by both candidates in the 2016 presidential election was unprecedented. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tweeted into the wee hours of the morning, delivering their messages directly to the voters, and reaching them in record numbers. The 2017 inauguration promises to set new records for all of today’s social media platforms.