Project Wonderful

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The First Modern Presidential Campaign

I have this joke with friends who are indulgent enough to let me drag them to historic Presidential houses: Every President ran or participated in the first modern Presidential campaign. About 50% of the time when I visit these homes a tour guide will make that claim about the home's erstwhile inhabitant. In addition, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, I have been listening to Slate's excellent Whistlestop Podcast which has only reinforced what I have been saying all season: every Presidential election is an historic election. First of all, that's what history means. There is no such thing as "most historic." Second of all, a lot happens in 4 to 8 years. I'm not saying this year isn't special, even the most casual observer will note my feelings on our opportunity to elect the first woman President. I'm just saying the game has been changed before. Here are 16 examples of "historic" campaigns.

1789: George Washington: Okay this is a softball. First president, first presidential election although there wasn't much of a campaign to speak of.
1796: John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson: First contested presidential campaign. Also the first peaceful transfer of executive power which...was not guaranteed at the time.
1800: John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson: Rematch! The first peaceful transfer of power between parties under the US Constitution.
1804: Thomas Jefferson vs. Charles Pinckney: Twelfth Amendment! This is the first Presidential election in which there were separate ballots for President and Vice President. Previously, the runner up just became the VP which...had been a problem for Jefferson and Adams.
1812: Madison vs. Clinton, non William Jefferson/Hillary Rodham category...First wartime election.
1840: William Henry Harrison vs Van Buren Seriously you guys, I cannot recommend Whistlestop podcast highly enough and this was my favorite episode. Just check out the quote there from below.
"It is a garden of delights of electoral history. It is the Woodstock of elections. It is the Studio 54 of campaigning. It's the election that cracked it all open. All the gooey madness that we know about now: the empty appeals to the crowd, the false advertising, the paradoxes, the booze and the circus atmosphere all started with this campaign."
This election is noteworthy for many things including the idea of actually running for office (speaking on one's own behalf) rather than simply "standing for office," and being the first Presidential election with universal white male suffrage! 80% of eligible electorate cast ballots. Not of registered voters, of eligible voters. Listen to the episode. It's wonderful. It's also where I learned the etymology of the word "booze."
1856: Buchanan v. Fillmore First time an incumbent President (Franklin Pierce) had sought and been denied his party's nomination. It is also the first Presidential election to be Democrat vs. Republican. As you can see the 1856 election was a real embarrassment of nobodies. I'll still make my boyfriend/exboyfriend/gay boyfriends visit their houses with me though.
1896: McKinley v. William Jenning Bryan #ManyPeopleAreSaying that this is the first modern political campaign due to McKinley campaign manager, Mark Hanna who began using tactics like polling and direct mail on a large scale for the first time.
1912: Wilson v. Roosevelt v. Taft This one gives me feelings. And it gives us the rise of the Presidential primary system. Although the first Presidential primary was held in Florida in 1901, former President and my favorite historical figure Teddy Roosevelt basically forced a more direct form of nomination on the Republican party because he wanted back in the White House and figured his personal popularity was the best route to defeating his once and future friend, President Taft. Read the Cliffs Notes version here. Spoiler alert: It doesn't work but it weakens Taft enough that Roosevelt can make a credible third party run handing the election to Wilson.
1920: Harding v. Cox First election following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and therefore the first in which women could vote #BeyonceVoters
1960: Nixon v. Kennedy and the first televised Presidential debate. Assuming you have not been under a political science rock, you may have heard about that.
1968: Nixon v. Humpfrey First election after the signing of the Voting Rights Act
1972: Nixon v. McGovern First election after the passage of the Twenty Sixth Amendment which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. (Also something something CREEP something something Watergate Hotel...)
1992: Bush v. Clinton this was the first election to feature a town hall style debate in which ordinary citizens as opposed to journalists asked candidates questions. Town Hall debates have been a staple of Presidential politics since.
1996: Clinton v. Dole The first election in which both major party nominees had websites. Check 'em out.
2004: Bush v. Kerry, but notable for the way in which the Dean campaign leveraged the Internet and in particular online fundraising.
2008: Obama v. McCain Obviously this was the time field organizing was invented! J/k, j/k, j/k definitely not, but it is certainly notable because the Democratic party saw a black man (Obama) and a woman (Elizabeth Warren) battling it out for an historic nomination.

And there you have it! It is late and I've been working on this for a while so apologies for personal snark and not following a rule by I decide which candidate's name came first. I hope you enjoyed this peek into history! Let me know if I left anything out.

Campaign Love and Mine,



  1. Wait... Elizabeth Warren wasn't the woman who battled in the Primary against Obama... ?

    1. Yeah I was making a little joke. All of the other above info is true though. Thanks for reading!