FROM GEORGE TO GEORGE
Americans have long had doubts about their politicians and political system, doubts we often think of as modern, but which go back in fact to the Founding Fathers and before. Yet there has also been an abiding faith in the principles of democracy, and democracy, as a number of observers have pointed out, is our country's most distinguishing characteristic and its vital contribution to world history.
America, Jane Addams, the early twentieth-century social settlement reformer, once said, was the "most daring experiment in democratic government which the world has ever seen."
The idea of democracy emerged in strength in the early nineteenth century, and once it did, it spread worldwide, at least in the hopes of people everywhere. Nothing guaranteed its emergence, nor its continuance even today. "Appreciating its historically contingent nature," one scholar has noted, "allows us to recognize how breathtaking its arrival was, how extraordinary its spread has been, and how uncertain its prospects are."
"Politics are much discussed...," Charles Dickens noted on his visit to the United States in the early 1840s. Election campaigns seemed to be going on all the time, with one common feature: As soon as the arguments over the last election were over, arguments over the next one began, "which is an unspeakable comfort," Dickens remarked, "to all politicians and true lovers of their country: that is to say, to ninety-nine men and boys out of every ninety-nine and a quarter."
Dickens was right. In this land across the ocean politics almost never went away.
Elections took place around the year, not just those for president or Congress, but for a host of positions -- an election of one kind or another just about every month in the calendar.
New Jersey, to take one example, had statewide elections in March, April, May, and December; other states did the same, and then there were district, county, city, and ward elections. Each election had its own party meetings and conventions; each had its own period of campaigning and voting.
"We work through one campaign," a tired Iowa politician once complained, "take a bath, and start in on the next."
"[T]he political activity that pervades the United States must be seen in order to be understood," Alexis De Tocqueville, another famous visitor, noted. "No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is heard on every side, and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants."
De Tocqueville did not note it, but in the United States, politics and economics form a peculiarly American linkage. Voting and the market are perhaps the two most important means ever devised of reaching collective decisions through individual choices.
It is no surprise, then, that through the first century-and-a-half of our history, people were devoted to their political party. It gave them identity, defined social relationships, provided a way to take part in the democratic process, and offered some stake in a better future. It did something more as well. In an extraordinarily mobile society, political parties transcended state and territorial borders, and people moving into new areas could carry with them the party slogans, rituals, and identifications they had known back home. They adjusted to the new, in short, by taking with them important parts of the old.
Elections, therefore, their candidates and their campaigns, as this exhibition shows, tell us a great deal about the nature of our democracy and of our culture and political system.
Using an array of fascinating campaign memorabilia -- flags, posters, vases, torches, buttons, and paintings, among many others -- it traces the course of our elective democracy from "George to George," from George Washington in 1788 to George W. Bush in 2004. These mementos, you should remember, stir with life. Living hands once touched them; living minds once identified intensely with them; living hearts once hoped they would bring victory to their cause.
Yet there are some today who wonder if our political system itself is still living.
Nearly everyone of a certain age can remember when most people they knew voted, when schoolchildren wore campaign buttons and shouted campaign slogans, when party workers nailed posters to telephone poles or taped them to store windows, and when political leaflets were slipped under windshield wipers.
Most of these things, of course, are no longer true.
Voter turnout, one measure of the change, has dropped dramatically. Only half the country's eligible voters currently show up at the polls for presidential elections. In state and local contests, only twenty or twenty-five percent do so; in municipal or village elections, it may be fewer than ten percent. A runoff election in a 1998 statewide Texas primary brought three percent of the electorate to the polls.
Turnout nationwide is now the lowest it has been since 1840, more than a century-and-a-half ago.
Even after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when many officials urged voters to come out in great numbers to show the world that democracy remained strong, relatively few people came. In New York City itself, one site of the tragedy, only thirty-six percent of registered voters showed up that fall at the polls.
Or, to look at the same phenomenon
another way: If sixty-three percent of the electorate
the year 2000,
as they did as recently
election of 1960, nearly twenty-five
million more people would have gone to the polls,
a number that
had started at
City, the line would have stretched across
the country to Los Angeles and back,
In thinking about the history of our presidential elections, it can help to keep in mind some of the ways in which historians and political scientists have come to view them.
One way, helpful in distinguishing one election from another, is to classify them by effect. Scholars, as they often do, have applied different labels, but many refer to "maintaining," "deviating," and "realigning" elections. A "maintaining" election, as the name suggests, tends to reaffirm patterns of partisan attachment. A "deviating" election results in a temporary defeat to the party in power without altering the basic division of partisan loyalties, and a "realigning" election, in some ways the most important of all, changes the fundamental party commitments of a large portion of the electorate, who will vote differently in the future.
"Maintaining" elections -- the victories of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872, William McKinley in 1900, FDR in 1936 and after, George H. W. Bush in 1988, among others -- are fairly obvious. "Deviating" elections include the victories of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916, a time of Republican hegemony, and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, in the midst of a Democratic era. "Realigning" elections, those that shift voting patterns for years to come, include the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932.
In recent years, some
observers have argued, there
may have begun
kind of "realigning" election,
a "philosophical" realignment
in which deep skepticism about
the role of government in our
society has replaced a pro-government
attitude dating from the New
Deal. The victories of Ronald
Reagan in 1980 and 1984 could
be evidence of this change, as
the Republican sweep of the 1994
Congressional elections under
the slogan of a "Contract
The first party system, in this view, lasted from 1789 to the early 1820s and witnessed the initial steps toward the establishment of lasting party organizations. Since the steps were both halting and incomplete, some have called it "a preparty system."
Running from about 1828 to the great realignment of the 1850s, the second party system witnessed the shift from strong local alignments into full two-party competition across the entire country, mainly between the Democrats and the Whigs. The third party system, lasting from the 1850s to the early 1890s, was the Civil War system that emerged from the collapse of the Whigs, the breakdown of nationwide partisan competition, and the reorganization of the party system along explicitly sectional lines.
The fourth party system, occurring from the early 1890s to about 1932, reflected the challenges of an increasingly urban-industrial society, punctuated particularly by a massive economic depression in the 1890s. Its hallmarks included Republican hegemony nationwide, one-party domination in both North and South, and a sharp decline in the enormous turnouts that had characterized the third party system. Finally, the fifth party system, often named the New Deal system, grew from the Great Depression and the partisan realignments of the 1930s. Two-party competition gradually re-emerged in one-party areas; class cleavages sharpened.
One of the fascinating things about our national life today is that we are in the midst of a fierce battle for party control, the outcome of which historians will someday call the sixth party system.
In general the "Founding Fathers" loved freedom but doubted democracy, fearful of what might happen if ordinary people were placed in charge of the country's affairs.
"[T]he proposition that [the people] are the best keepers of their liberties is not true," John Adams, our second president, said in 1787. "They are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all. They can neither act, judge, think, or will...."
That was pretty strong talk -- shared, by the way, by men like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson -- and the talk grew stronger still when it came to political parties. The colonial elite feared the idea of political parties most of all. These harmful things, they were sure, fostered disorder, resisted control, acted from personal and selfish motives, and followed unpredictable purposes. Parties would also get in the way of the crucial task of nation-building, splitting people into separate camps at precisely the time when national unity was the foremost goal.
"If I could not go to heaven but with a party," Jefferson famously said, "I would not go at all."
Others would not go, too, especially the most celebrated individual of them all, the very "Father of his Country," who in his famous Farewell Address warned his countrymen solemnly against "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party...." "It serves," he said, "always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection."
It was no surprise, then, that many early state constitutions included provisions that sought to make parties unnecessary, and the authors of the Constitution itself tried by indirection to do pretty much the same. The Constitution, as they wrote it, provided only the barest of electoral machinery and contained no mention whatever of political parties, nominating conventions, or other practical devices. It delegated to state legislatures the power to establish the eligibility of voters, while reserving to Congress only the authority to "make or alter such Regulations."
On the eve of the Revolution, the electorate was adult, male, largely Protestant, and white. Even that, from one perspective, was remarkably inclusive for the period, embracing as many as two out of three white men, unlike Great Britain, where it was about one out of four. Still, since adult white males composed about twenty percent of the total population, somewhere between ten to sixteen percent of the population was eligible to vote in 1776.
Several factors restricted voting, including laws in many colonies that based eligibility on property holding or the payment of taxes, on the theory that men who had property had a stake in society. Women could not vote because they had a different role in the hierarchy of men. In the Southern colonies, even free African Americans could not vote. In the eighteenth century, five colonies disfranchised Catholics, four disfranchised Jews. Slaves and Indians, comprising almost one-fifth of the population in 1790, also could not vote.
In rural areas, it could be difficult just to get to the polls, and in many regions, of course, there was the powerful custom of "deference," in which the "common folk" deferred to the authority of their social and economic "betters."
Ben Franklin poked fun at it all, especially the linkage between property holding and voting. A man, he pointed out, might own a jackass worth fifty dollars, which would entitle him to vote, but by the time the next election rolled around, the jackass, sad to say, had died. The man, meanwhile, had acquired more experience and could cast a wiser vote. Yet with the jackass dead, he could not vote at all. "Now gentlemen, pray inform me," Franklin asked, "in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?"
Even as Franklin wrote, there were already powerful pressures for change. Washington Irving's famed Rip Van Winkle, who had the misfortune of sleeping through the Revolution, saw them firsthand. Returning to his village after his long nap, Rip found everything changed, home, his neighbors, even his favorite inn where he had spent many happy hours. The old sign was still there, with "the ruby face" of King George, but it was different. "The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, GENERAL WASHINGTON."
Some things were still there, it was true, including the usual crowd of people drinking heartily outside the inn, but these were not his people; they were not drowsy or tranquil enough. They seemed pushy and argumentative instead; and worse, a "lean, bilious-looking fellow," his pockets full of handbills, suddenly rushed over and wanted, of all things, to know how Rip had voted.
As old Rip discovered, in the twenty years he had been asleep a new sense of politics had swept the land. The time of the first party system had arrived, and elections and parties were undergoing important changes.
Politics had begun to touch those "bilious-looking" fellows, not just the elite. Ordinary Americans were beginning to experience the host of parades, festivals, civic feasts, badges, and songs that voiced their own participation in national politics.
Most at the time celebrated George Washington; if not him, then Independence Day. As Washington traveled for his first inauguration from Virginia to New York, huge crowds of people greeted him everywhere, showering him with reverence, triumphal arches, poetry, and music. A ceremonial barge carried him across the Hudson River, to the sound of cannon and bands, and he long remembered the "joyful acclamations of every party and every description of citizens."
As the generation of the Founding Fathers died away (Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other on the same day, July 4, 1826), the second American party system began to take shape. It did not spring up overnight, of course, but instead grew gradually over a period of a dozen years, first in the Middle States, then in New England, then in the Old South, and finally in the new states of the West and South. An inventive time in our politics, the years between the mid-1820s and 1860 saw the strengthening of political parties and the development of campaign techniques designed to persuade large numbers of people to vote. When the period ended, there was competition between two national political parties and a two-party system in every state.
Americans, it turned out, had rather soon got used to the idea of having political parties. Unlike many of their forebears, they saw advantages in disciplined organizations that could conceive and enact programs, they liked the idea of a loyal opposition, and they came to value a party system that included regular competition between permanent party organizations.
changes reinforced their ideas. Thanks to new technologies, newspapers
news more quickly
and fully over a broader range of territory.
Canals, steamboats, and railroads
the political community, making it
possible to hold
state and national party conventions,
put on rallies, conduct
campaign tours, and
extend politics into
state and nation.
Belonging to a political party, the era discovered, gave people a feeling of community, "an internalized sense of history, tradition, and common values." Once perceived as divisive, the parties became schools instead, teaching "seasonal courses in how to be Americans." Party activities became lessons in civics, their rituals visible everywhere, the language plain and understood, and they all affirmed democracy, mass participation, and the role of the "People" in the political process.
This was all new, this "popular politics." Historians have called it "democratic theater," the way in which ordinary Americans took their place in the nation's politics. Torchlight parades, mass rallies, stump speeches, and election-day barbeques involved and empowered them. Emotion and display -- the announcement of a person's partisan loyalties and his vote -- made that vote more meaningful.
The politics of the street, it enabled voters and non-voters, men and women, parents and children, to take visible part in the electoral process. All told, it was almost as revolutionary as the great Revolution that gave it life.
Behind these developments lay important changes in the method of choosing presidential electors, changes that called for greater and greater voter participation in the election of the president. In 1800 the legislatures in ten states chose presidential electors; voters chose them in only two. By 1824 that pattern had changed dramatically: Legislatures chose electors in only six states, and after 1832 in only one.
Election laws tried to tighten the relationship between voters and officeholders, an emphasis that filtered through the entire political system. It added a popular dimension to the race for president, increased the importance of state party machinery, weakened the influence of legislative caucuses, and brought about the use of national party conventions. Above all, it placed the quadrennial presidential election at the center of our politics.
For various reasons the Democrats were the first to seize the changes, and between 1828 and 1832, they, under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, created the world's first mass political party. You could measure it in the turnout. People voted in 1828 and 1832 in more than double the proportion of the electorate that had voted in presidential elections ever before. Proportionally, in fact, Jackson's victory in 1832 drew a greater turnout than the election that first put Ronald Reagan into the White House.
For our purposes, then, it is not surprising that the presidential campaigns of the period, especially the two Jackson campaigns of 1828 and 1832, saw the introduction of more and more campaign objects, such as tokens, buttons, pitchers and plates, bandanas, ribbons, flasks, combs, and thread boxes. Designed to stir the enthusiasm of all those new voters, they were among the first material objects ever used in campaigns.
Jackson's backers waved hickory branches in honor of "Old Hickory." They used music, among the first to do so; they became the first (in Jackson's unsuccessful campaign of 1824) to issue a campaign biography. The first campaign buttons were issued in the 1824 campaign, struck by Jackson supporters and holed at the top so they could be worn on a ribbon from the lapel. Jackson's 1832 re-election campaign witnessed the first torchlight parades. To appeal to women, the Jackson campaign of 1828 distributed sewing boxes and combs bearing pictures of Jackson.
Jackson's victory in 1828 -- with fifty-six percent of the popular vote and an overwhelming margin in the electoral college -- displayed the success of the new methods and ensured their lasting effect. Thereafter, our presidential politics shifted more and more to party rivalries, intense party organizations, popular campaigning, and mass voter participation. Some critics complained that the new methods ignored issues and pandered to the ignorant masses -- "Here is a revolution in the habits and manners of the people," John Quincy Adams spat out. "Where will it end?" -- but they found it hard to argue against success. Before long, they or their parties had embraced the new methods.
Other changes followed naturally in the wake.
Voter turnout rose sharply, from twenty-seven percent in 1824, to fifty-six percent in 1828, to seventy-eight percent in 1840. The parties also avidly pursued new voters, which resulted in a dramatic expansion of the suffrage.
In 1833, Jackson became the first president to call himself the "direct representative" of the people and claim to have a mandate from the voters.
There was a new spirit of party, in which individuals submerged their own desires in the larger interests of the cause. As a Tennessee congressman put it in 1836, "Union, harmony, self-denial, concession, everything for the cause, nothing for men, should be the watchword and motto of the Democratic party."
Congressional caucuses had once nominated presidential candidates, but that method went by the wayside after 1824. Nomination by state legislatures did not work either, and in the 1830s, the parties settled on a national convention to ensure popular participation in the process.
In 1840, for the first time, the Democratic convention adopted a national platform, and eight years later it appointed the first national chairman and the first national committee. The fundamental apparatus was now in place to nominate candidates, organize campaigns, mobilize voters, and raise funds.
Somewhere in heaven, Thomas Jefferson
must have shuddered.*
That year, for the first time in our history, two parties that were organized on a national basis, the Whigs and the Democrats, fought for the presidency. In a remarkable development unforeseen by the country's leaders just a generation before, both parties now had competitive organizations in every state; both knew how to arouse popular enthusiasm. Remarkably, too, voters in every state had begun to think of themselves as either Whigs or Democrats, identifying with the symbols, personalities, and organizations of what they now viewed as their political party.
By 1840, as one historian has noted, the parties were so well organized down to every ward and precinct, they were so good at bringing enormous numbers of voters to the polls, that "we may finally speak of the full emergence, in modern terms, of mass political parties, the first in the world."
During the 1830s, a new party had taken form, united mainly by opposition to Jackson himself. Calling themselves the National Republicans and then, after 1834, the Whigs, they stole every element in the Democratic game: organization, pageantry, excitement, and imagery. In the hard-fought contest between the Democrats and the Whigs, the election of 1840 represented the maturation of the second party system.
For a second term in the White House, the Democrats renominated Martin Van Buren, probably the era's most talented politician, the mastermind behind many of the recent party developments. The Whigs turned to a military hero who might rival Jackson in the popular imagination: General William Henry Harrison of Ohio, the victor in 1811 over Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief, at the junction of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers. Balancing the ticket with John Tyler of Virginia, they came up with their famous slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."
The result was one of the best-known presidential campaigns in our history. The Whigs took the offensive from the start. Seizing on the new campaign techniques, they sent speakers into twenty-six states, including the famed Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Harrison himself made two dozen speeches in Ohio, becoming the first presidential candidate to campaign in his own behalf. The Whigs organized mass meetings and rolled giant buckskin-covered balls bearing campaign slogans from city to city (the origin, by the way, of the phrase, "keep the ball rolling").
One such ball, rolled by hand all the way from western Maryland to Baltimore, said,
Farewell, dear Van
Already ahead, the Whigs soon got an enormous break. Trying to persuade voters of Harrison's unfitness for the presidency, the Baltimore Republican, a Van Buren newspaper, suggested that a barrel of hard cider and a modest pension was all the Whig candidate needed, so he could "sit out the remainder of his days in his log cabin ... and study moral philosophy."
Whig editors seized on the image, and the Whigs, who had often borne the difficult label of the party of the rich, gathered in the cloak of the common man. Virtually overnight Harrison became the farmer and backwoodsman, comfortable in his log cabin, the same cabin he had left to fight for his country in the Indian wars and the War of 1812, a keg of hard cider by the door, the homey brew that formed his favorite drink.
The image, of course, came nowhere close to matching reality.
Harrison, as anyone who looked up
the facts would know, was the son of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of
the Declaration of Independence, and he grew up not in a log cabin but
on a large Virginia plantation. As his own 1840 campaign began, he lived
in a palatial mansion in Ohio, complete with white pillars, outbuildings,
and an expansive lawn.
But it did little good. The Whigs,
for this one year at least, had mastered the new techniques of popular
and party involvement.
Building on the earlier Jackson campaigns, Whig organizers used music. ("The spirit of song was everywhere," a young party member recalled, "and made the whole land vocal. The campaign was set to music. ...") They issued the first campaign songbook, containing tunes like "The Hard Cider Quick Step" and the "Log Cabin or Tippecanoe Waltz." Practicing inclusive politics, they found ways to bring women into the campaign, asking them to write pamphlets, give speeches, present toasts, cook campaign meals, and sew banners. "This way of making politicians of their women is something new under the sun," a Georgia Democrat complained, "but so it is the Whigs go to the strife."
More than ever before, Whig leaders used Harrison's face in campaign literature and on campaign devices, giving him life to the voters. Buttons, banners, pitchers, and bandanas made him "The Log Cabin Candidate" and "The Ohio Farmer." He became both military hero and the symbol of rural virtues. "In Peace, the Farmer and his Ploughshare; In War, the Soldier and his Sword," one campaign ribbon said.
A Philadelphia distiller, E. G. Booz, put his whisky into log cabin-shaped bottles, adding the word "booze" to our language.
Van Buren, the master of the new politics, liked it not a bit, denouncing the Whig campaign as "a political Saturnalia."
He liked it even less when he saw the election returns. Nearly four in every five eligible voters - 80.2 percent, to be exact -- turned out at the polls, compared to only 57.8 percent in 1836. Every state hit new peaks of participation; New York State had a turnout of 91.1 percent. William Henry Harrison won handily, 234 votes to 60 in the electoral college.
The defeated Democrats, who had pioneered most of the Whig techniques, had no sense of humor. They were so upset by the log cabin campaign that in 1844 they put a plank in their platform condemning "displays and appeals insulting to the judgment and subversive to the intellect of the people."
After the 1830s, when state after state gave the vote to all white males regardless of birth or property, the United States had the most open electorate in the world, part of a larger sense of openness in economic and social life that restructured American society.
That electorate, to be sure, was limited to those who were male and those who were white, but it was a stunning development nonetheless, that made the United States for much of the nineteenth century the only democracy in the world.
But in mid-century it was a democracy that almost did not survive.
The second party system, so alive in the elections of the 1830s and 1840s, dissolved during the 1850s, in the midst of events no party system had ever witnessed before -- or, thankfully, since. A major national party, the Whigs, simply disappeared; a new party rooted in a nativist, anti-Catholic secret society, the Know-Nothings, gained remarkable success; another new party, the Republicans, grounded in a sectional appeal against allowing slavery into the territories, rose to major-party status; and the Democrats, the dominant national party since the days of Jackson, disintegrated into an organization that fielded two candidates for president in 1860. And finally, eleven states decided in 1861 to secede from the Union rather than accept the victory of Abraham Lincoln.
These, of course, were among the most trying years in our history, a time of questioning about slavery and freedom, sectionalism, race relations, votes for women and others -- about the continued existence of the Union itself.
Out of the troubles came the third or Civil War party system which would last from about the mid-1850s until the 1890s. A time of intense electoral competition, the third system was marked by new and larger polarities between North and South, greater attention to party management, new ideologies and style, and remarkably high voter turnout. It drew, in part, on a rise of anti-slavery, temperance, and anti-Catholic zeal.
One of the key developments, of course, was the formation in 1854 of the Republican party, which named its first presidential candidate in 1856, John Charles Frémont, a famed western explorer, "The Pathfinder," young and dashing, a person who, as Harrison had in 1840, might attract a wide range of voters.
Successor to the Whigs, the Republicans from the start used the successful Whig tactics of 1840 to promote their candidate. Carrying imitation as far as they could, they even revived Harrison's log cabin symbol for Frémont -- though it was no more appropriate for him than it had been for Harrison -- and in a time of widening tensions over slavery and the territories, seized on the memorable slogan, "Free Speech, Free Press, Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont and Victory."
They also sang, shouted, and marched. Calling themselves the "Wide Awakes" -- always awake against slavery -- a marching group began in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1856, and spread quickly across the North, enrolling all told some 400,000 people. Members carried kerosene torches and wore glazed cloth capes to fend off the dripping oil; they marched in army formations. In a riveting display, row after row of marching men, torches burning, paraded through the darkened streets of towns and cities and passed before a reviewing stand on which the candidates for election stood. Tens of thousands of people watched and cheered.
"You can hardly go out after dark without encountering a torchlight procession," a visitor to Maine wrote in 1860. "In the larger places not a night passes without a demonstration of some sort." The parades, as an Ohioan remarked, looked "like the waves of a river on fire." In some places women had their own Wide-Awake clubs, clad in cambric dresses, capes of the same material, and striped aprons of red, white, and blue, "each color bearing a single letter of the word 'Abe.'"
Campaign buttons, banners, and badges reflected the serious issues the nation faced in 1860, especially slavery and disunion. Taking advantage of recent developments in the art of photography, button manufacturers for the first time produced ferrotype portraits of the candidates, encased in brass frames, a special benefit for Abraham Lincoln whose features were not as well known as his rivals for the White House.
(It was a face, however, to remember. When Steven A. Douglas, his Illinois opponent, once accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln replied, "I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?" )
In the heat of the campaign, Lincoln became "Honest Abe," "Old Abe" -- a slogan we would not see in the youth-conscious culture of today -- and, of course, "The Rail-Splitter," an image that not only harked back to the log cabin campaigns of Harrison and Frémont but also served to remind Lincoln, and those around him, of his ties to the working class.
And, amazingly, in 1860, a scant half-dozen years after their party's founding, the Republicans won the presidency. Lincoln captured only two voters in every five, but with overwhelming margins across the North, he emerged the winner.
There was some thought he might lose in 1864 -- he himself was so sure of it that he drafted and signed a memorandum pledging to work with the new president-elect "to save the Union between the election and the inauguration..." -- but timely victories on the part of the Union army saved him. The Democrats remained remarkably resilient, especially for a party identified with secession and war.
The Democrats, in fact, came strikingly close to winning back the White House as early as 1868, just four years after the end of the war; and in 1874 they did win control of the House of Representatives, a control they maintained for all but four of the succeeding twenty years. In 1868 Horatio Seymour, the Democratic candidate, actually carried New York, New Jersey, and Oregon, a result, the shrewd Republican James G. Blaine noted with understatement, that "was not comforting" to the Republican leadership.
With the war ended, the decades that followed became "the party period," the time of greatest attachment to political parties in our history. No wonder. Civil War loyalties, Republican or Democratic, often lasted a lifetime.
"We love our parties as we love our churches and our families," Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire said in 1886. "We are part of them." "What the theatre is to the French, or the bull-fight or fandango to the Spanish, the hustings and the ballot-box are to our people," another observer said. "We are all politicians, men, women, and children."
This seems strange language in the anti-party atmosphere of today, but in the late nineteenth century it rang true. Electoral politics in these years built on the deeper meanings they had acquired earlier in the century. Involving more than simply electing officials, they provided public recreation and entertainment and confirmed everyone's role in the democratic process. They linked the local with the national, as local campaigns fit into statewide results, which in turn determined the outcome in the nation at large.
People actually "lived" their politics, which in the absence of national athletic events, was their era's spectator sport. They stood in the hot sun (or driving rain) and listened to speeches of three hours or more; they read party literature; they discussed the issues at home. Campaigns enlisted whole families, fathers, mothers, and children.
Party loyalty was handed down from fathers to sons, and to daughters as well. When a reporter from the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican got home after casting his vote in the 1864 presidential election, he called his children into the garden and, as they watched, hung a Democratic ballot on a hook and set fire to it, while the children gave three cheers for "Old Abe." He wanted, the reporter said, to teach the children "their political duty in their youth."
At election time, party workers - estimated at about five percent of the adult male population, the equivalent today, as one historian has noted, of all our golfers, tennis players, and skiers - put in ten or fifteen hours a week working for their party. More than half the population attended political speeches and rallies, as many as our summer visitors to zoos, fairs, amusement parks, and outdoor sports events put together. It was a very different time, indeed.
There were three other features that
set politics apart in these years, the final decades of the third party
system: elections were close, the franchise expanded, and people voted
in extraordinary numbers.
As a result, late nineteenth-century elections were close, the closest the country has ever experienced. In the five presidential elections between 1876 and 1892, an average differential of only 1.4 percent separated the Republican and Democratic candidates. The Republicans managed to win three of the five races, but they captured the majority of the popular vote in none of them, and they had a plurality only once, in 1880, and then it amounted to a scant 9,457 votes out of over 9.2 million cast. Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison won the presidency in 1876 and 1888 even though they actually trailed in the popular vote. Grover Cleveland's margin in 1884 over Blaine came to about twenty-nine thousand out of over 10 million votes cast.
Building on patterns that had started early in the century, the franchise again grew.
The adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 gave the vote to most adult males, black as well as white -- at least for a time. What was more, in twenty-two states, aliens could vote as well as citizens, and in much of the country, restrictions against office-holding diminished. Alabama, Missouri, Virginia, and Arkansas no longer required that their governors be born in the United States. New Hampshire, which had mandated that only Protestants could serve in state offices, dropped the provision in 1877, as did Massachusetts for its governor in 1892 and Delaware for its United States Senators in 1897.
Finally, there was the amazing voter turnout, the highest voter mobilization in our history.
Large numbers of people, we should remember, remained unable to vote. Women could vote in national elections only in Wyoming and Utah, in Colorado (after 1893), and in Idaho (after 1896). In recognition of their "natural" role, women could vote in school board elections in seventeen states, and in three states those with property could vote on measures involving taxes and bonds. African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities were also often kept from the polls.
But among those who could vote, turnout was astonishingly high, averaging just under eighty percent of eligible voters in the presidential elections between 1868 and 1892, numbers unequalled before or since. In the presidential election of 1876, turnout nationwide reached 81.8 percent, the historic high for a presidential election. In only one presidential election -- 1872 -- did the turnout sink below seventy-five percent, and in 1896, almost eight voters in every ten went to the polls to vote for president.
In parts of the North, the numbers could be dazzling. In Indiana, turnout averaged ninety-three percent in the presidential elections between 1868 and 1892; in New Jersey, eighty-nine percent. In the 1896 presidential election, more than ninety-five percent of the eligible voters cast ballots in the Midwest.
To get these large turnouts, politicians in the period perfected the "army" or "military" style of campaigning, a new development in our long history of political campaigns. It must have seemed natural enough: They had lived, after all, through the massive battles of the Civil War, and they had hundreds of thousands of Civil War veterans who could not wait to march.
Elections, in this new "military" style, became battles, the two parties formed armies, voters were troops, and the polls were the battlefield. "Even the language of politics," as one historian has noted, "was cast in military terms." At the opening gun of the campaign, the standard bearer, along with his fellow war-horses, rallied the rank and file around the party standard. Precinct captains set their phalanxes to mobilize voters; party headquarters used their war chest to enlist supporters; party literature armed men for battle; and, on election day, the well-drilled ranks overwhelmed the opponent's camp and claimed the spoils of victory.
The "military" style lasted roughly through the late 1880s, though remnants of it could be seen many years later. Since virtually everyone belonged to one party (army) or the other, the party's task was not so much to convert voters as to get them out on election day. To do that, it employed badges, uniforms, parades, and mass gatherings to listen to party speakers. Fireworks and cannon fire simulated the battlefield.
Torchlight parades were the key to it all. Young Herbert Hoover never forgot the first torchlight parade he ever saw. It was 1880, and he was six years old. "I was not only allowed out that night, but I saw the torches being filled and lighted," he recalled years later. "I was not high enough to carry one but I was permitted to walk alongside the parade."
The parades were huge. When James G. Blaine came to Indianapolis to stump for Benjamin Harrison in 1888, there were 25,000 marchers, forty brass bands, and dozens of flag-laden floats; it took an hour and a half for the marchers to pass the reviewing stand, and something on the order of 100,000 people looked on. On November 1, 1896, well after the "military" style had begun to wane, over 100,000 people marched for Republican candidate William McKinley in a "Sound Money" parade down Broadway in New York City.
Before long, however, the tactics began to change.
The change started in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when important elements in the electorate became more independent-minded, less prone to respond to the emotional "military" style. Sensing this, political leaders soon shifted their strategy to appeal more and more to voters through publicity, advertising, and reasoned discussion. A new style of campaign, the "merchandizing" or "educational" style, was born.
It still aimed, of course, at turning out voters, but it placed more emphasis on winning new supporters with thoughtful argument. It looked, therefore, to pamphlets and advertising, and it exploited smaller meetings, even as few as several hundred people, who listened to expert speakers unravel the mysteries of the major issues of the day.
Mass meetings and bonfires began to disappear and so did the torchlight parades. Wisconsin Republicans concluded in 1892 that "they can put campaign funds to better uses than the purchase of uniforms, torches and banners, the hiring of brass bands and all the rest. They consider that not many votes are made in that way." In a telling moment, an Indiana reporter in 1916 happened to come across an old kerosene torch, left over from the 1892 campaign, and wondered why in heaven's name people had ever carried them in parades. All they did, he wrote, was to drip oil on the marchers' clothes.
A torchlight parade, the New York Times remarked even more caustically in 1924, could work only in an era of drab farm or village life. "There are no villages now," the Times said smugly. "We are all urban, children of the movie and the radio, speeders of the car, 'fed up' with searchlights and colored lights."
(The Republicans purchased the last torches in 1900, ending a marvelous half-century tradition that had stirred many a voter. )
The "educational" style came to a peak in the exciting 1896 campaign that pitted McKinley against William Jennings Bryan, the candidate of the Democratic and People's parties. Bryan, as we know, took his campaign on the road, aware that his rebellious candidacy lacked the usual support of party newspapers and party organizations. Contrary to legend, he was far from the first to do so. William Henry Harrison had campaigned in 1840, Steven A. Douglas in 1860, Horatio Seymour in 1868, Horace Greeley in 1872, and James G. Blaine in 1884.
But he was the first presidential candidate to make a systematic tour of the states he needed for election. In a display of remarkable stamina, he traveled more than 29,000 miles and delivered 570 speeches in twenty-nine states, speaking to audiences totaling two or three million people. "It used to be the newspapers educated the people," he said to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, "but now the people educate the newspapers."
McKinley adopted the same strategy, in a different way. His headquarters in Chicago had a large educational organization, designed to create and distribute the new kinds of campaign materials. It included a Literary Bureau, a Speakers' Bureau, and departments that looked after the needs of specific groups, such as unions, African Americans, Germans, Scandinavians, college students, and traveling salesmen.
The Literary Bureau, into which the McKinley campaign poured a great deal of money, prepared material for Republican newspapers across the country; giving voters something to read, it produced over two hundred different pamphlets, printed in twenty-one languages, on the gold standard, the tariff, and other issues. The mailing room had 100 full-time employees who sent out, all told, more than 100 million documents. "The operation," as one historian has noted, "has never been rivalled in American politics."
And that was not all. McKinley himself conducted a "front porch campaign," modeled on the stay-at-home campaigns of Garfield in 1880 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. ("I have great risk of meeting a fool at home," Harrison had said at the time, "but the candidate who travels cannot escape him." ) Trains carried as many as 750,000 persons to his home, a figure that amounted to about five percent of the total vote and thirteen percent of the entire Republican vote that fall. There he greeted them with freshly-prepared remarks, ready for printing in Republican newspapers across the country. All together, McKinley gave three hundred speeches, all from his front porch.
"This is a year for press and pen," he remarked. "The sword has been sheathed. The only force now needed is the force of reason and the only power to be invoked is that of intelligence and patriotism."
There was one other force that year, evident in this exhibition. A revolution in political campaigning occurred in 1896, the arrival of the celluloid pin-back button, which, once produced, spread more rapidly than any other single item in the history of our politics. In the 1896 campaign alone, more than a thousand varieties of celluloids publicized the presidential candidates. They were cheap, often less than a penny apiece, durable, and attachable to clothing. Able to display any artwork that could be printed on a paper disk, they made possible an array of designs and colors that the metal badges of an earlier era could not carry.
Highly visible, the new buttons could convey a wide range of candidate and party messages. Wearing one on the shirt or lapel, voters could declare their political preferences for all to see.
McKinley buttons often featured his likeness, along with slogans such as "The Advance Agent of Prosperity" and a "Full Dinner Pail," both promising a return to prosperity after the devastating depression of the 1890s. Bryan materials usually related to the silver issue, making his campaign the most sharply focused since Frémont's in 1856.
Whether for McKinley or Bryan, buttons and images proliferated. Experts have counted at least two thousand types of items for the 1896 campaign, virtually double the number produced in any previous presidential election.
Everything worked, at least in drawing out the voters. In the election of 1896, nearly eighty percent of eligible voters across the nation cast ballots; in some states, turnouts ran far higher than that.
It all seemed well and good -- who could argue, after all, against campaigns that stressed education and reasoned argument? But for our political parties and our political system, there was a penalty, at first unrecognized, to the "educational" style, an erosion of partisan loyalty that over decades would result in a drastic drop in voter turnout. Politics stirred and involved fewer voters, emphasized the personalities of candidates, and in the absence of mass involvement, promoted the participation of pressure groups.
In some sense, the result was unfortunate. Something important was lost, a feeling of involvement, a point of vital contact between voter and system, an assurance that democratic politics could work.
The remarkable Theodore Roosevelt did his best to restore it, making governance a matter of personal responsibility. TR, as he himself was quick to note, brought important changes to the presidency and to presidential politics, including a focus on his own personality -- to the point, as someone once said, that at a wedding he wanted to be the bride, at a funeral the corpse. Henry Adams, overwhelmed with TR's restless energy, called him "pure act." "You must always remember," a British friend remarked in 1904, "that the President is about six."
"Taft is a far abler man than I," TR once wrote of his ill-starred successor, "but he don't know how to play the popular hero and shoot a bear."
In his several campaigns for office, Roosevelt somehow brought together most of the images of the presidential past: the war hero of Washington, Jackson, the first Harrison, and Grant; the common touch of Abraham Lincoln; the frontier image of Frémont and Jackson; the intellectual ability of Thomas Jefferson. He was easy to portray. Campaign objects, as the items in this exhibition show, often depicted his teeth -- "almost as big as colt's teeth," a New York newspaper once said -- his work on his Dakota ranch, or his experience as a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War.
While TR was transforming the presidency into the famed "bully pulpit," developments beyond his control were changing presidential politics.
During the late 1890s, the third party system began to give way to the fourth, a time when interest in politics fell sharply. Fewer people took the trouble to vote. In the last five presidential elections of the nineteenth century, turnout averaged 79.2 percent; in the first five presidential elections of the new century, it averaged only 65 percent, a dramatic drop. Thanks to measures in the South designed to take the vote away from blacks and poor whites, the falloff was most severe there, but it occurred in every area of the country.
"The drop in voting," one historian has noted, "was nationwide, substantial, and cumulative." It also had never occurred before, neither in our own history -- for more than a hundred years we had broadened suffrage and boosted turnout -- nor in what was going on in other Western democracies.
And it was enduring. Turnout rates, to be sure, fluctuated during the twentieth century - dropping in the 1920s, rising somewhat in the 1930s, stabilizing after World War II, and then falling again after 1960 -- but they remained fairly close to the levels seen before World War I.
Why did it happen?
For one thing, the massive Republican realignment of the 1890s, inaugurating more than three decades of Republican dominance, reduced partisan competition in most parts of the country. With minor exceptions, Republicans took charge in the North, Midwest, and West, and Democrats in the South. In many areas party competition dwindled, which reduced voter enthusiasm, which in turn reduced turnout.
Nationwide, the Republicans went on to victory after victory, losing in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson only because of the split in their own ranks -- between TR, who ran as an insurgent on the Progressive party ticket, and William Howard Taft. The Democrats bumbled, confined to their Southern stronghold and voters in some Northern cities. In 1924 the Democratic national convention took an embarrassing 103 ballots to choose its presidential nominee, and party members wondered what had happened to the great party of Andrew Jackson. As Will Rogers put it, "I am not a member of any organized political party -- I am a Democrat."
The adoption of the Australian secret ballot, which spread rapidly across the country during the 1880s and 1890s, also dampened party spirit. The secret ballot, of course, represented an important advance in cleaning up politics, but at the same time it weakened the political party. No longer could parties print their own ballots, which allowed cheating and encouraged people to vote a straight ticket; no longer could party workers at the polls watch how people voted. The secret ballot, in short, worked well for political honesty, but not so well for voter turnout.
In the first two decades of the century, a time of massive immigration from abroad, a number of states narrowed the franchise by adopting literacy tests for voters, and some raised the length of their residency requirements. More and more states required voters to register personally, shifting the responsibility for registration from the state to the individual, and eliminating those voters who failed to register on time or at all.
Women's suffrage, adopted nationwide in 1920, played an ironic role in depressing turnout figures: It swelled the size of the eligible electorate, but women for years voted in smaller proportions than men. Voting rates among blacks in the South plummeted, reflecting the intent of Southern whites to keep them from the polls. By 1908, all of the eleven former Confederate states required payment of a poll tax in order to vote, and seven of them also had literacy requirements. The combination of both on Southern voting was devastating.
Finally, during the fourth party system, people consciously worked to weaken the power of politicians and parties through measures such as direct primaries, direct election of United States Senators, and the initiative, referendum, and recall -- all designed to bring voters more directly into the process. At the same time, Americans turned more and more to their professional associations, not their parties, to get things done. Lawyers, doctors, and teachers formed professional societies; farmers joined co-operatives; businessmen banded together in trade associations.
The old array of campaign activities -- parades, rallies, and bonfires -- diminished. Campaign buttons were still produced but more rarely worn. Campaign managers relied on media and advertising rather than on the older forms of mass voter mobilization. A growing range of leisure-time activities, such as professional baseball, amusement parks, vaudeville, and circuses, diverted Americans from politics in new ways. Political campaigns, once one of the occasions around which Americans organized their lives, became listless and dull.
In an attempt to change that, Warren G. Harding in 1920 conducted something of a front-porch campaign, reminiscent of those of Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and McKinley. Party leaders, in fact, had hoped he would stay at home. "If he goes out on the hustings," one of them said, "he's the sort of damned fool who will try to answer questions."
But the strategy had another purpose, too, calculated to evoke the old, simple, small-town America in a nation that was rushing to cities and factories. To make sure no one missed the connection, party workers brought the flagpole from McKinley's front yard and erected it on Harding's. Al Jolson sang his campaign song, "Harding, You're the Man for Us," which included the line, "We need another Lincoln to do the nation's thinkin'." Harding himself played the tuba. It was one of the first alliances between presidential politics and the nation's growing entertainment industry, so prominent later on in the era of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
The appeal to the past fooled no one. There were too many signs of the new America, some of them evident in the Harding campaign itself.
One was political advertising. Advertising executives had first entered presidential politics in a substantial way in the elections of 1912 and 1916. Recognizing the charms the "Full Dinner-Pail" had worked for McKinley in 1896, they came up with an appealing campaign for Woodrow Wilson in 1916, highlighted by the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." Large posters showed a nation at peace, factories running at full blast, and a happy worker coming home to a smiling wife and two children, all below a picture of Wilson. At the bottom it said, "He Has Protected Me and Mine."
Albert Lasker, one of the most renowned of the era's advertising experts, took charge of the Harding campaign, though the slogan he came up with -- "Let's be done with wiggle and wobble" -- left something to be desired. Still, he "sold" Harding on billboards and in magazines, "positioning" him as an old-fashioned, honest, Midwesterner.
He sold him, too, on radio, an even more important landmark of the new America. Radio, and of course television in later years, transformed political campaigns forever. Messages moved almost instantly across the country. Image, personality, and sound bytes became more and more vital. Experts began to learn how to "stage manage" -- a telling phrase -- political personalities and use modern marketing tools to persuade voters and win elections.
Radio had its first significant outing on November 2, 1920, when station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast for the first time the results of a presidential election. Harding, the winner, became the first president to be heard on radio, but Calvin Coolidge, his successor, actually used it with greater effectiveness, an interesting fact given Coolidge's reputation for stubborn silence. (Informed that Coolidge was dead, Dorothy Parker, the famous wit, replied, "How can you tell?") During his time in office, more people heard Coolidge's voice than had heard all of his predecessors combined.
In 1923 he delivered his State of the Union address over the radio, the first president to do so, and he tapped radio's help during his 1924 campaign for election. ("During the campaign he had little to say and said it well," William Allan White, the famous Kansas journalist, said of Coolidge that year.) On March 4, 1925, twenty-one radio stations across the country carried his inaugural address, to perhaps fifteen million listeners. Those in awe of the new and the modern shivered as they heard him turn the pages.
In another breakthrough, radio broadcast the national party conventions for the first time in 1924. Helpful to the Republicans, it was unfortunate for the Democrats, whose convention staggered through those 103 ballots. It also showed its early power to shape reputations. One of the period's most famous speakers, William Jennings Bryan, "the Boy Orator of the Platte," turned out to have a poor voice for radio, while Franklin D. Roosevelt began his brilliant radio career with his eloquent nomination of fellow New Yorker, the "Happy Warrior," Alfred E. Smith, for the presidency.
Roosevelt, in fact, became the key figure in a new party system, the fifth, that grew out of the elections of 1928 and 1932. Elections in this system were hard-fought, and they clearly reflected social divisions within our society, exposed, for example, in the bitter 1928 campaign between Yankee Protestant Herbert Hoover and Irish Catholic Al Smith.
Voters for the moment pinned the blame for the Great Depression on the Republican party. The Democrats won election after election, becoming the country's majority party for the first time since the early 1850s, nearly a hundred years before.
They did something more. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, they restructured the political system -- indeed, the whole society -- around the power and money of the federal government. In ways never seen before, New Deal programs affected voters' lives every day. The Civil Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and other relief agencies gave jobs to over seven million adults; the National Youth Administration did the same for several million young people, most of whom never forgot it. The Homeowners' Loan Association helped refinance one of every five private mortgages; the Social Security Act established a system of old-age insurance for virtually everyone; the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration introduced electric power into millions of rural homes.
All together, FDR and the New Deal reshaped the ways Americans thought, acted -- and voted.
In the crisis of the Depression, FDR appealed for a time to virtually everyone. Using the radio as no president had used it before, he gave in his first two years in office six "Fireside Chats," talking to millions of Americans -- "my friends," he called them warmly -- in ways that convinced them he knew about their problems. Among many, he inspired enormous affection, even veneration, reminiscent to some degree of George Washington. "My mother looks upon the President as someone so immediately concerned with her problems and difficulties," one man said in the 1930s, "that she would not be greatly surprised were he to come to her house some evening and stay to dinner."
Yet the Roosevelt coalition turned out to be too broad, unable to satisfy the expectations of everyone in it. Large numbers of voters who disagreed with FDR on social and economic issues had voted for him out of disappointment with Herbert Hoover and the Republicans. When economic recovery did not come immediately, many of them shifted back to the Republican column.
Still, FDR's legacy endured, in politics as well as ongoing government programs. To his party's traditional stronghold in the South, he had added urban voters, immigrants, labor, Catholics, minorities, women, and the poor, a new political coalition -- the famous and powerful New Deal coalition -- parts of which have lasted until the present day.
Behind the scenes, however, new forces were at work to reshape our politics. A nation of abundance and suburbs, gleaming automobiles and glowing television sets, yearned to put the feelings of the depression and war behind, and there was a political party ready to do just that. It was the Republican party, and they were about to put together a winning coalition of their own.
It started, according to some accounts, in 1947 during halftime at a Texas high school football game, when the Abilene High School band used flash cards and a marching formation to try to lure a famous army general to run for the presidency. While the appeal did not work for another five years, "I like Ike" became one of the most successful political slogans in American history.
And Ike himself, as it turned out, became the first candidate (and president) to exploit television, a medium that despite his awkwardness he used with skill.
As with radio, TV cameras had made their first appearance at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, when NBC and Philco in 1940 televised parts of both conventions to an audience of about 50,000 people who lived near the transmitter on the Empire State Building in New York. In 1948 they extended their coverage to about ten million people, most of them still living in the Northeast, and by 1952 carried the conventions to a national audience. In 1968 they broadcast them for the first time in color.
The parties, as they so often have throughout our history, adjusted quickly to the new medium. As early as 1948 they arranged their convention agendas to deal with routine matters during the day, important business in the viewer-rich evening. That year, too, television began to manipulate images to entertain its audience.
Learning of the plan of some Southern delegates to walk out of the Democratic convention over the civil rights plank in the platform, a director persuaded them to march first to the NBC studios at the end of the hall and rip off their convention badges in front of the cameras.
That was dramatic, but audiences and markets were small -- in 1948 fewer than three percent of the population owned a television set -- and so were the ideas about how to use this new medium. When President Harry S. Truman taped one of the first "spot" announcements ever aired that year, it offered no political message and simply encouraged people to vote.
Then Eisenhower and his advisors began to work the revolution. By 1952 there were some 18 million television sets in the country, and viewers were eager to follow the conventions and campaign. About forty percent of all families -- more than fifty percent of all voters -- tuned into the national conventions, a figure that would be the envy of the parties today.
Watching the conventions was so popular, in fact, that advertisers actually built ad campaigns around them, something the Whigs in 1840, with all their inventive flair, might have done, too. "Buy a television, watch the conventions," RCA urged. "With the aid of television," another RCA ad said, "we had what amounted to the greatest town meeting ever held. ... Sixty million people had front-row seats and got a better picture of what was going on than any delegate or any reporter on the convention floor."
(Over time, fewer and fewer people took those fabled front-row seats, and the great town meeting, sadly, shrank. In 1952 the average television household watched twenty-five hours of convention coverage. In 1996 it watched four hours; in 2000, three hours. Only thirteen percent of television households even had their sets turned on for the most recent national conventions. )
In 1952 the Eisenhower campaign became the first to hire an advertising agency full-time. Rosser Reeves, a top executive with the Ted Bates agency in New York, produced the first "spot" commercials, aimed at an audience he was sure, as a long-time marketer of business products, had a limited attention span. That meant "spots" of thirty seconds, certainly no more than a minute. "I think of a man in a voting booth who hesitates between two levers as if he were pausing between competing tubes of toothpaste in a drugstore...," Reeves said. "The brand that has made the highest penetration in his brain will win his choice...."
To get that kind of penetration, Eisenhower's admen ran a program, "Eisenhower Answers America," in which people-on-the-street asked the candidate questions. To find the people, Reeves rounded up tourists who were waiting in line to see the show at New York's Radio City Music Hall and took them to a studio where he filmed their questions for the candidate.
Once, between takes, Eisenhower shook his head and muttered sadly, "To think that an old soldier should come to this."
so soon after the advent of television, Ike's 1952 campaign
saw another first, the pre-emption of favorite
for political ads. Most people did not like it, especially
when Republican managers even pre-empted the nation's
favorite -- I Love Lucy. Telegrams flooded the network,
many of them bearing a clear message, "I like Ike.
But I Love Lucy."
Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor and intellectual who was Eisenhower's Democratic opponent, was aghast. "The idea," he said, "that you can merchandize candidates for high office like breakfast cereal, and that you can gather votes like boxtops, is, I think, the ultimate indignity for the Democratic process." After losing, Stevenson had the added thought that it might have been better if the parties had simply purchased a half-hour of radio and TV silence, "during which the audience would be asked to think quietly for themselves."
Jack Kennedy had no such qualms. Family money provided a massive publicity buildup for his candidacy, and there was no hint whatever of Stevensonian reluctance. As his father told a friend, "we're going to sell Jack like soap flakes!"
The Kennedy campaign in 1960 employed television, advertising, and polling data more than any campaign before, using professional pollsters to test voter sentiment on different issues (a relatively new concept) and nail down wins in key primaries.
Kennedy also "won" the opening televised debate -- or so said polls of viewers -- the first between presidential candidates in our history. The Kennedy-Nixon debates have long since entered political legend. Seventy-five million people watched the first one, a remarkable total, and sixty-three million the last. During all four debates, the TV audience never fell below fifty percent of the nation's adult population.
(Those figures meant that about sixty percent of all households with television sets watched the four debates. By 1984 Reagan-Mondale attracted only forty-six percent; in 1988, Bush-Dukakis about thirty-six percent; in 1996, Clinton-Dole just twenty-nine percent. In 2000, the Bush-Gore debates attracted overall about the same percentage of viewers, but the third debate drew only twenty-six percent, the worst ever. )
With Kennedy's victory in mind, presidential candidates after 1960 increasingly embraced television as the way to communicate with voters. They cut back on the number of paid party workers and relied on television and television advertising to get their message to the electorate. Professional campaign managers and media consultants played greater and greater roles in their campaigns.
Campaign ads and news began to merge in viewers' minds, a phenomenon that experts call "meltdown." As Robert Mulholland, a former president of NBC, has noted: "Some of the ads start to look like news stories, they're the same length, 30 seconds.... Television is not just separated in the minds of the viewer between this is news, this is commercial, and this is entertainment. Sometimes it all gets fuzzed up because it all comes into the home through the same little piece of glass."
"American politics and television are now so completely locked together," Theodore White, the renowned political observer, has noted, "that it is impossible to tell the story of the one without the other."
No wonder. Studies show that Americans spend more time watching television than any activity other than sleeping or working. Seven of ten Americans, it is true, read a daily newspaper and two of ten read a weekly magazine; there are twice as many radios as there are people. But ninety-nine percent of households have television sets (more than half, in fact, have two or more), which are turned on an average of six hours and forty-four minutes a day. In the year 2000, fifty-seven percent of Americans called television their main source of information for world events.
Television news shapes politics in a variety of ways. It tends, for one thing, to focus on the personalities of candidates and on the race for the presidency; congressional, gubernatorial, and other races are largely ignored. To sharpen the drama, it often names an early front-runner, the candidate most likely to win, who becomes on the small screen the central figure of the campaign, victory his if he can overcome the obstacles between himself and the White House. It then selects his leading opponent and covers his challenge to the front-runner, thus narrowing the field to two candidates and harming the chances of all the rest.
To complete the picture,
TV journalists, in a remarkable reversal of earlier
more "news time" than the
presidential candidates themselves.
In campaigns during the late 1990s,
about one-sixth as much speaking time
as the reporters who covered them;
they became brief sound bytes. In 1968,
the average candidate
was 42.3 seconds; in 1996 it was 7.2
Television has had another, more hidden effect on our presidential politics, the attention given to vice presidents as future candidates for the presidency. When the Republicans in 1960 chose Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate, it was the first time in more than a century that a vice president had been selected to replace a retiring incumbent (the last one was Martin Van Buren in 1836). Since then, of course, vice presidents have won the nomination again and again, in part because television has expanded their visibility and given them important advantages over their rivals.
Nixon, in some ways, inaugurated the new and most recent era in our politics, the growing strength of the Republican party and the powerful role of conservatives within it.
Following the strategy of political author Kevin Phillips, whose 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority was widely read, he worked during his first term to combine his party's traditional constituency with the growing number of voters who questioned the civil rights, anti-war, and social reform movements of the late 1960s. Many of these voters had tended to support the Democrats in the past, including white Southerners, blue-collar workers, and followers of conservative religions.
Nixon's triumph became clear in 1972,
when he carried forty-nine states and won by nearly eighteen million
votes, the largest margin in our history. His opponent, George McGovern,
was cast as an out-of-date liberal, a throwback to a discredited time.
Reflecting new Republican strengths, Nixon swept the South, receiving
over seventy percent of the vote in some Southern states, the first
candidate to carry all eleven states of the old Confederacy since FDR
had in 1944.
(Nixon's time in office even affected exhibitions like this one. After Watergate, the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act limited campaign contributions and expenditures, and allocations for buttons and other campaign items dropped dramatically. In August 1976, the commission created under the act ruled that party committees could spend no more than $1,000 in promoting presidential nominees.
Since then, national party organizations have wound up spending so much money on media, travel, and other costs that little has remained for the traditional buttons and bumper stickers. Campaigns have cut back on distributing items to voters. In 1976 Jimmy Carter's media director made the decision not to distribute campaign buttons at all, but when local Carter-Mondale workers complained bitterly, he agreed to buy 200,000 cheap tin buttons, about one for every volunteer, saying, "Who wears buttons? It's the people who work in the headquarters operations. If you send them enough for themselves, they'll have them and that's that." )
Despite Nixon's errors, later politicians would continue to build on his new Republican majority.
A variety of issues, from the Equal Rights Amendment to abortion, gave them fresh momentum in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Catholics, who had voted Democratic for more than a century, joined religious Republicans in opposition to abortion. Influential Democrats, thinking their party had become too liberal, organized a "neo-conservative" movement that had great influence on the Republican party. Republicans began to adopt the tax reduction philosophy that marks the party to this day.
Leading it all was Ronald Wilson Reagan, actor, television performer, and governor of California, who took advantage of the nation's swing toward conservatism. Some veteran Republicans took Reagan too lightly -- Nixon called him "a lightweight and not someone to be considered seriously" -- and later rued their mistake. In line with the voters' mood, he believed fervently in states' rights and limited government, in reduced taxes, and in greater spending on defense. The federal government, he announced in November 1975, in his first run for the presidency, "has become more intrusive, more coercive, more meddlesome and less effective."
In 1980 he played skillfully on the woes of the Carter administration, including economic troubles at home and weaknesses abroad. "A recession," he said during the campaign, "is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job. And recovery will be when Jimmy Carter loses his." Carter of course did lose, and with the help of the "Moral Majority," a conservative religious movement led by Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Republicans for the first time in nearly thirty years captured control of the Senate.
During his first term, Reagan kept his eye on three major goals -- a reduction of taxes, an increase in spending for defense, and a loosening of government regulations in many areas of American life -- and, remarkably, he accomplished them all. Running for re-election in 1984, he celebrated "Morning in America," his television ads featuring small town barbershops, the Statue of Liberty, patriotic parades, scenes of rural tranquility, and Americans on the job.
It all worked. Reagan brought together the Sunbelt and suburbs, many old New Dealers, the religious right, and others into an enormous victory. He carried forty-nine of fifty states and fell just a few votes short in the fiftieth. (Walter Mondale, his opponent, carried his own state of Minnesota by only 3,761 votes out of 2,680,906 cast.) He took 58.8 percent of the popular vote, the fifth highest total in the twentieth century, and won a record 525 electoral votes, surpassing Roosevelt's 523 electoral votes in 1936.
Thanks to Iran-Contra and other problems, Reagan's reputation suffered during his second term, and the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 1986. But Reagan did complete two terms, the first president to do that since Eisenhower, and he restored a welcome sense of self-confidence to the nation.
He also became the uncontested hero
of the modern Republican party. The new Republicans of the 1980s and
defense of the federal government and his views on race; disliked
TR's penchant for social reform and greater government power;
considered Eisenhower's brand of Republicanism a surrender to the liberals;
for Watergate. Reagan's policies of smaller government, tax cuts,
deregulation, and increased defense spending had become the central
tenets of Republican
It didn't work out that way. George H. W. Bush, Reagan's designated heir, stumbled in the presidency, especially on the tax issue in 1990, when he went back on his popular slogan, "Read my lips. No new taxes." People read his lips and in 1992 voted the other way. They also turned away from Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. Seizing on a conservative agenda -- "It is impossible," Gingrich said, "to maintain civilization with twelve-year-olds having babies, fifteen-year-olds killing each other; seventeen-year-olds dying of AIDS, and eighteen-year-olds receiving diplomas they cannot read" -- the Republicans had managed to take control of the House of Representatives in 1994, for the first time in forty years, but after a sad display of political and personal weaknesses, they lost their way.
The 1992 presidential campaign offered some intriguing incidents: candidate Bill Clinton saying he did not inhale; a voter asking President Bush what the national debt meant to him personally; Ross Perot withdrawing from the campaign because Republican plotters were going to disrupt his daughter's wedding; Vice President Dan Quayle misspelling the word "potato"; Admiral James Stockdale, the vice-presidential candidate on the Perot ticket, asking in the midst of the vice-presidential debate, "Who am I? What am I doing here?"
Clinton won, but he captured a majority of the popular vote only in his home state of Arkansas. When he won again in 1996, it was the first time since FDR in 1936, sixty years before, that a Democratic president had been re-elected for a second full term in the White House. Forty-nine percent of the eligible voters cast ballots for president that year.
In 1998's congressional elections it was thirty-six percent, and, remarkably, more than half the children in the country lived in a household where neither parent voted.
In campaign 2000, the networks cut back their coverage of the national conventions, the setting that had once been the centerpiece of those great town meetings of 1952. NBC and Fox also decided not even to broadcast ninety minutes of the first debate between Bush and Gore: NBC televised a baseball game, Fox its regular prime time programming. The number of people watching the debates sank to the lowest level ever, some forty million fewer than watched the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.
Barely fifty-one percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2000, which meant that only about twenty-five percent of the electorate -- about one in four -- voted for either Bush or Gore. In seven states -- one of them, interestingly enough, George Bush's home state of Texas -- more votes were cast in a gubernatorial or Senate race than were cast for president.
In 2000, 105.4 million people went
to the polls; 100.4 million did not.
The election results again suggested growing divisions in the country. Al Gore won more female, black, urban, union, and non-gun-owning voters, more new immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants, more non-church-going families, and more pro-choice women. George Bush, on the other hand, won more white men, especially in the South, more gun owners, more men and women opposed to abortion, more people who lived in the country, and more religious conservatives.
"We have two massive, colliding forces," the Washington Post said. "One is rural, Christian, religiously conservative with guns at home, terribly unhappy with Clinton's behavior.... And we have a second America that is socially tolerant, pro-choice, secular, living in New England and the Pacific coast, and in the affluent suburbs."
That brings us to the present day.
We are now, it is clear, working our way toward a fresh understanding of our politics and our political culture, in ways sometimes so fundamental that we might be reminded of the questions the Founding Fathers posed at the beginning of this exhibition.
In some respects the news is good.
While we vote at rates much lower than other democratic nations -- twenty to thirty percentage points below voters in Europe, for example -- we take part in the actual workings of government, through contacts with public officials and other means, at rates substantially above Europeans. We write more letters to our congressional representatives than we ever have before. We join political organizations of various kinds -- special interest groups, community organizations, and political action committees -- in large numbers, both locally and nationally.
We are the only country that chooses the lower house of the national legislature as often as every two years. We are virtually unique in the broad range of offices -- judges, sheriffs, city councils, county officials, and attorneys general, to name a few -- that are elective positions. Our elections, we should remember, fill over 500,000 offices in the United States within each four-year political cycle, an astounding number, about one to every one hundred families.
We continue, as we have through much of our history, to add voters to the rolls. The "Motor Voter" bill, which took effect on January 1, 1995, added in less than two years about nine million voters to the electorate, not all of whom, of course, voted. As the twenty-first century gets underway, nearly all adult citizens are legally entitled to vote.
Finally, some states have found that "same-day" registration, which allows citizens to register even on election day, increases turnout dramatically. In the six states that have that law, turnout in 2000 was fifteen percentage points higher than in other states. Minnesota, one of them, leads the nation in turnout rate, including a remarkable rate of sixty-nine percent in 2000. Adopted nationwide, experts think, "same-day" registration would increase voter turnout by five percent.
Still, we must face the fact that
our turnout has slumped badly, so badly that we now rank among the lowest
of all democracies in the world, twenty-third, in fact, among twenty-four
The patterns are pretty clear. Whites, people between the ages of forty-five and sixty-five, non-Southerners, people with higher family incomes, people with higher levels of education, white-collar workers, and professionals tend to vote more. Minorities, the poor, the young, the less educated, and those in lower-status occupations tend to vote less.
In 1994, 60 percent of eligible Americans with incomes greater than $50,000 a year went to the polls; among those who earned under $5,000 a year, only 19.9 percent did.
As figures like these suggest, the overall decline in voting has given more power proportionally to those who do vote, including people who are older, who earn more, or who hold strong opinions on issues like gun control and abortion.
Some commentators -- among them the well-known conservative columnist George Will of the Washington Post -- point with satisfaction to the low turnout, arguing that if apathetic voters stay home, it is better for the country.
Others are more worried, especially about the young, the generation that will oversee our democracy during the coming decades.
Remember that in the mid-1800s youngsters coming of voting age voted in enormous numbers, as many as eight out of every ten. In 1971, passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, enfranchising people between the ages of eighteen and twenty, added about twenty-five million potential voters to the rolls. The Amendment's supporters had confidently predicted large turnouts, but they were wrong. Among adults under the age of thirty, only thirty percent voted in 2000.
It was not for lack of trying. MTV ran a "Choose or Lose" campaign aimed at young voters, with a slogan saying, "You might as well pull the lever, What 'chu afraid of?" Groups like Rock the Vote placed voter registration tables at rock concerts around the country, aired public-service announcements on widely-watched MTV, and established a toll-free 800 number to tell voters how to register. Madonna served as a Rock the Vote announcer, appearing in a red bikini, black motorcycle boots, and an American flag. Flanked by two young men, she urged viewers to vote -- or get a spanking.
It might have been interesting to see what people chose, but then it was learned that Madonna herself was not registered to vote.
Young or old, people have turned increasingly to politically active interest groups, believing them more effective in attaining their goals than the traditional political parties.
In an important move, Congress in 1974 changed the campaign finance law to recognize Political Action Committees. Within a decade, PACs had increased in number from 600 to 4,000. Corporations make up more than forty-five percent of all Congressional pressure groups; women, who comprise more than half the population, have about one percent of them. There are no PACs looking after the interests of migrant laborers, child-care workers, or a host of other people.
About two-thirds of us, some recent polls have shown, think that interest groups run our government.
New methods have changed the way our politics work. We select our presidential candidates more and more through primaries, which unroll, in presidential years, in relentless succession. Some major states, especially in the South, have grouped their primaries on a single date, making "Super Tuesday" increasingly important in determining the final nominees. Yet voters have lost confidence in the primary system and say they would prefer almost any alternative, including a return to old-style political conventions.
Computers complete tasks that once had been the treasured job of a ward or precinct leader. They put together demographic studies, churn out voting statistics, and evaluate the results of opinion polls; they print literature, address mail, and keep financial reports. Professional polling organizations test voter views, often using focus groups, another new technique, to try out campaign issues.
Direct mail, loading our mailboxes, has brought about a new form of grass roots involvement in politics. Richard Viguerie, the best-known figure in the field, started his direct-mail corporation in 1965 with $400 and the membership list of the conservative group, Young Americans for Freedom. A decade later, he had on computer tapes more than thirty million names of conservative-leaning people, employed three hundred persons, and mailed each year seventy-six million letters. All of them predicted disastrous defeat for conservative causes -- unless, of course, the recipient sent money.
Thomas Jefferson still shudders in heaven.
But should he? "From George to George": It has been a remarkable story -- and, we trust, an informative exhibition. Parties and PACs, torches and television: a great deal has happened in the 250 years of our history that is traversed in these rooms. The objects here show a spirit akin to Jefferson's own: experimental, adventuresome, hopeful for democracy, adjusting again and again to changing conditions in a changing country. Jefferson himself, after all, completed the daring Louisiana Purchase two centuries ago.
Will Rogers once remarked that "Presidential elections are a good deal like marriages. There is no accounting for one's taste." But there is an accounting for the people's tastes, the many ways in which they have affirmed the gift of a democratic society, and it lies in the display cases around you.