From the Front Porch to Instagram Live

Presidential campaign tactics: then and now

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form click here)

As the 2020 election season gets underway (we know, we know, but it’s here) Instagram seems to be the new communication tool of choice. Maybe this is because Twitter is the domain of President Trump. Perhaps presidential hopefuls have seen the success of freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram use. In any case, as one snarky Twitter user noted, the glut of Instagram live videos showcasing Democrats talking policy while cooking might make the 2020 primaries look like “Top Chef”.

2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren discussing her candidacy on Instagram live

In the age of the Internet, social media represents the newest wave of campaign tactics. Trump arguably used Twitter to win the election, just as Barack Obama used Facebook to raise grassroots support for his campaign. It’s a long ways from what used to be considered revolutionary in presidential campaigns.

The 19th century saw the beginning of genuine electioneering, including sex scandals, fan clubs, and insults. But elections were still subdued affairs. In the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland gave only two speeches. In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant didn’t campaign at all. (of course, as a famous, war-winning general, he did not need to raise his public profile).

James Garfield was the first presidential potential to make the race more personable. Given the precedent that men should not seek the presidency, the incumbent Rutherford B. Hayes advised Garfield to “sit cross-legged and look wise until after the election.” When Garfield returned home from the nominating convention, he walked straight into the next trend of presidential campaigns–the front porch.

Known to the public as a hero from the Civil War, people flocked to Garfield’s Mentor, Ohio home to wish him well on his candidacy. Garfield, in turn, would give speeches to the people gathered outside his home, which generated even more interest in his campaign. It wasn’t quite so spontaneous as it sounds–Garfield and his people carefully exchanged letters with different groups to arrange exact arrival times, so that Garfield could tailor his remarks to each visiting group.

The front porch campaign was a new phenomenon in American politics. And it worked–between 15,000 and 17,000 people traveled to Garfield’s hometown (which at the time had a population of less than 600 people) to hear the candidate speak.

This technique was considered such a success that Benjamin Harrison adopted it in 1888, and William McKinley adopted it in 1896. McKinley decided to conduct a front-porch campaign for two reasons. One, his wife Ida was unwell and he wanted to remain close to her in their native Ohio. Two, he would be running against William Jennings Bryan, who had decided to throw tradition to the wind and actively campaign. Bryan planned on traveling the country via train to whip up support for his candidacy. This technique would later be repeated by other presidential hopefuls, including Eisenhower and Truman, but at the time it was considered quite outside the norm.

What’s more, Bryan was thought of as one of the great orators of the age. “I might just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan,” McKinley argued to his campaign manager, Mark Hanna. In any case, McKinley added, “I have to think when I speak.”

Thus, the campaign strategy became tried and true (McKinley) vs. showy and untested (Bryan).

McKinley’s staff went about carefully orchestrating a front porch campaign that would capture attention away from the barnstorming Bryan. Mark Hanna portrayed the McKinley home as one of political pilgrimage for Republicans. Delegations from all over the county came to see the candidate, and in return, McKinley would listen to their (pre-edited) remarks, and then give relevant remarks of his own, to great fanfare. Hanna and McKinley took the Garfield model and reworked it–McKinley saw some 750,000 people cross his front lawn.

Bryan lost the election in 1896 (and 1900 and 1908) but ultimately his form of campaigning would become the preferred choice of presidential hopefuls. By 1960, Richard Nixon took a page out of Bryan’s book and pledged to visit all 50 states (a promise which thoroughly exhausted the candidate, and may have cost him the election).

Yesterday it was considered uncouth to campaign at all–today politicians are literally letting us into their kitchens via Instagram and Twitter. In the age of the Internet, the campaign of 2020 will undoubtably be conducted across social media networks.


3 thoughts on “From the Front Porch to Instagram Live”

  1. Very insightful, as usual. Post-retirement I now love Instagram, and follow many people on Twitter (not the donald!). Don’t use Facebook – which really now why would anyone with all its problems. 2020 here we come!

    Liked by 1 person

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