United States Political Campaigns of the Past | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Political Campaigns of the Past - Image Gallery Essay


United States Political Campaigns of the Past | Wisconsin Historical Society
Franklin D. Roosevelt waving from a flag draped car surrounded by policemen on motorcycles.

FDR in Milwaukee, 1932

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning for the presidency in Milwaukee in 1932. FDR is riding in a flag-draped open car and escorted by police on motorcycles. View the original source document: WHI 54380

Have you ever wondered how candidates communicated their message to voters before campaign commercials, robocalls and social media? Candidates in the past spoke face to face with citizens. They rode trains or buses across the country, stood in open wagons and convertibles to give speeches, entered floats in parades and set up booths at state fairs. They also bought space in newspapers and magazines, printed posters, fliers and bumper stickers, gave away buttons and jewelry. Opponents and supporters ran political cartoons in newspapers and magazines. The Wisconsin Historical Society has a vast archive of political campaign memorabilia dating from 1850 to the present day.

Campaigning, 1850-1960

EnlargeLee Sherman Dreyfus lifts his arms skyward in triumph at a podium before his election supporters.

Governor-elect Lee Sherman DreyfusGovernor-elect Lee Sherman DreyfusGoGGovernor-elect Lee Sherman Dreyfus, 1978

After winning the election, Governor-elect Lee Sherman Dreyfus raises his arms in triumph as he speaks to his cheering supporters. View the original source document: WHI 55047

Candidates conducted their first campaigns through newspapers. In the early years of the United States, newspapers were the primary medium for reaching large audiences. In 1820 there were more than 50 newspaper subscriptions for every 100 households. By 1828 political parties were creating and publishing many of the nation's newspapers. Until then it had been considered inappropriate for candidates to campaign face to face. But the 1828 campaign of Andrew Jackson pushed that envelope and aggressively marketed him for the White House.

William McKinley's 1896 campaign brought 750,000 visitors through his hometown of Canton, Ohio, and made the first effective use of the "photo op." His campaign also produced 100 million pieces of literature — more than seven documents for each registered voter.

Radio became a powerful campaign tool during the 1920s. Both Republican and Democratic conventions were broadcast in 1924. That same year the candidates used radio as they crossed the country campaigning. This helped establish the idea of the "personal presidency," in which a candidate's connection to voters became more valuable than his stand on the issues. Between 1933 and 1945 Franklin Roosevelt exploited this transition in more than 30 "Fireside Chats" that reached into the homes of voters.

Modern Times

Television commercials for political candidates were first produced in 1952 when Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign hired Madison Avenue's Rosser Reeves. Eisenhower once filmed 50 political spots in a single day. The first televised presidential debate occurred in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. By this time 90 percent of American homes had televisions, and media historians have concluded that Kennedy's skillful use of make-up and camera angles gave him the edge. After losing the election, Nixon returned to California, surrounded himself with advertising and public relations experts, and emerged to capture the White House in 1968.

Today candidates employ all those media — face-to-face, bus tours, print, radio and television — as well as social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case enabled not only candidates, but special interest groups such as unions and political action committees, to spend as much money as they wish on campaign advertisements. Americans now face a deluge of political messages and campaign ads such as the nation has never seen before.

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Our collection of political campaign poster, photograph, broadside and other material images begins about 1850 and continues to the present.

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