A stay-at-home presidential campaign is nothing new to American politics

May 16, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Joe Biden is stuck in his basement.

Donald Trump is stuck in the White House or in Mar-A-Largo.

Neither of the presidential nominees-to-be is out “on the hustings” or “pressing the flesh,” as would be happening in normal quadrennial years. No big rallies, no $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinners, not even conference rooms with staffers to plan and discuss strategy.

This situation, however, is not as abnormal as you might think. As curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has written in a recent New York Times article: 

. . . history shows that for the first century of American politics nearly all candidates stayed home. Parties ran their races for them. The idea of a man promoting his own election, The New York Times wrote in 1892, “disgusts the people.” In an age of tribal partisanship, feuding candidates and frequent epidemics, this style of socially distanced stumping drew record turnouts and protected a candidate’s honor, and maybe his health. Such a retro campaign might suit the weird world in which we live today. Source: Opinion | How to Run for President in the Middle of a Pandemic – The New York Times

Most famously, Abraham Lincoln stayed at his home in Springfield, Illinois, during the 1860 presidential campaign, not saying a word to the public. 

There were lots of reasons to do this. Candidates were not selected because of their abilities as public speakers. Still, Lincoln has proven himself to be an effective speaker by the fame he had achieved in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Earlier in 1960, Lincoln had gone on an introduction tour of the northeastern states and had delivered a stirring address at New York City’s Cooper Union.

But the situation in the summer and fall of 1860 was such that Lincoln believed that anything he said after receiving the nomination would be misconstrued by his opponents, so he said nothing. He left the speech-making to others.

One of those was William Seward, senator from New York and himself a candidate for the Republican Party nomination. After losing out to Lincoln, Seward undertook a speaking tour of the western states on Lincoln’s behalf, and his stops included Springfield. When he arrived at the train station, Lincoln was there to greet him.

The 19th century model of presidential campaigning was finally broken in 1896 by William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic representative from Nebraska and a noted public orator. Bryan had captured the Democratic nomination by a captivating speech to the Democratic convention in Chicago.

Bryan’s opponent was Republican William McKinley, who had few oratorical skills but far more campaign money than Bryan would ever be able to raise. Bryan, therefore, had to hit the campaign trail, and he did so like no one ever before him. He gave 600 speeches and spoke to an estimated 5 million people.

It didn’t work. Bryan lost the election (he would also lose in 1900 and again in 1908), but he had permanently changed American presidential election campaigning. Theodore Roosevelt, no stay-at-home guy himself, campaigned vigorously for election to a full term in 1904.

In 2020 America may again be in for what used to be called a “front porch campaign.”

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