THEN AND NOW: How campaigning for president has changed over the years

  • Candidates never used to campaign for themselves — supporters spoke on their behalf.
  • Debates were televised beginning in 1960, and the first televised town hall debate was held in 1992.
  • Attacking one's political opponent is nothing new, but the methods have changed.
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It used to be considered ill-mannered for presidential candidates to openly campaign for themselves. Times have changed.

Presidential campaigns are now billion-dollar operations that involve attack ads, social media strategy, and lots of stump speeches.

Here's how presidential campaigns have changed over the years.

Presidential hopefuls never used to campaign for themselves — it was considered uncouth.

Campaigning was conducted through magazines, pamphlets, political cartoons, and events where supporters spoke on a candidate's behalf. Candidates themselves didn't speak in front of audiences to urge people to vote for them — it was considered improper.

In the late 1800s, candidates began to give stump speeches from their homes in what were known as front porch campaigns.

James Garfield was the first presidential candidate to run a front porch campaign in 1880. William McKinley helped popularize the practice in 1896 since he lived close enough to the railroad for members of the press and public to easily access his home.

Eventually, campaign events where candidates promoted themselves in front of giant crowds became the norm.

Ronald Reagan addressed a crowd at the Topanga shopping mall in California on the campaign trail.

Criss-crossing the country to attend events and give speeches is now a campaigning necessity.

Gone are the days of candidates seeming boastful by promoting themselves. Politicians now travel across the country in buses emblazoned with their faces.

Front porch campaign-style engagements have seen a resurgence in the form of virtual events due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Joe Biden has been hosting virtual events from his home in Delaware.

In 1858, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates set the precedent for future presidential forums.

Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas took part in seven debates during the 1858 Illinois senate race — the first notable electoral debates in US history. Lincoln lost the election, but his participation in the debates elevated his reputation and made him a viable presidential candidate.

A century later, in 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debates.

The ability to watch presidential candidates debate changed the way people perceived their fitness for office. On television, Kennedy appeared calm and affable, while Nixon appeared nervous. People who watched the debate thought Kennedy won, while people who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon won. Kennedy went on to win the election.

The first televised town hall debate was held in 1992, though the forum style dates back to the 1600s.

The first town hall meetings in the US were held in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633, according to Smithsonian. They made a comeback in the 1992 election between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, changing up the established formal debate style in favor of a more informal question-and-answer session with members of the public. Clinton's charm and public speaking skills stood out, and he went on to win the election.

Social media changed the way people watch presidential debates, with reactions in real time.

Social media shaped the way viewers responded to the 2012 presidential debates between Mitt Romney and then-President Barack Obama, picking up on certain memorable moments and phrases.

In a 2012 presidential debate, Mitt Romney's remark about "binders full of women" became a meme, with that part of the debate generating 104,704 tweets per minute, according to NPR.

The hashtag #horsesandbayonets also trended on Twitter when Barack Obama responded to Romney's statement that the Navy has fewer ships than it did in 1919 by saying, "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed."

Now, presidential debates can be streamed online.

More than 73 million people watched the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on TV. There's no way to measure how many people streamed the event, but Axios estimated the number to be somewhere in the millions.

Campaign merchandise and buttons were established as a popular strategy in the mid-1800s.

Before he was elected as the ninth president, William Henry Harrison was mocked by his opponents for being dull, with one newspaper writing, "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin."

Harrison's party spun this description to his benefit, labeling him the "log cabin and hard cider" candidate, and contrasting him with President Martin Van Buren, whom they painted as out of touch with the people. Harrison's "Log Cabin Campaign of 1840" built log cabins that functioned as stores selling log cabin-themed campaign merchandise.

The strategy worked, leading to Harrison's victory. Campaign buttons became popular when the fastening pin device was patented in 1896.

Buttons remained a popular campaigning device into the 20th century.

They were often emblazoned with catchy slogans, like Dwight Eisenhower's "I like Ike" from 1952.

Presidential campaigns still give out plenty of buttons.

During the presidential election of 2008, Obama's campaign handed out "Yes we can" buttons.

Merchandise has since expanded far beyond buttons. Donald Trump's campaign is known for its red "Make America Great Again" hats.

Modern presidential campaigns offer a variety of merchandise: lawn signs, T-shirts, mugs, hats, and even face masks for the coronavirus pandemic.

Attacking one's opponent is nothing new — Abraham Lincoln was vilified in political cartoons.

The above cartoon depicts Lincoln in a sleuth outfit to indicate cowardice, and shows him joking on a battlefield surrounded by suffering troops.

Derisive chanting isn't new, either. Grover Cleveland was mocked for having an illegitimate child in 1884.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland admitted to fathering an illegitimate child, sparking chants of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" (When he won the election, Democrats responded with "Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!")

Campaigns began buying airtime to run attack ads in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to release 30-second political ads on television in 1952, turning him into a celebrity.

Lyndon Johnson's notorious "daisy" attack ad, featuring a girl counting down flower petals that transformed into a countdown for a nuclear explosion, helped sink Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964. 

Although these ads still run today, candidates can attack their opponents more directly and frequently thanks to social media.

President Donald Trump is known for tweeting disparaging nicknames for his opponents.

Candidates never used to ask for money to support their presidential bids.

The campaign of Andrew Jackson, who didn't come from wealth, was the first example of what we now understand as campaigning and fundraising, although he never asked for money himself. Jackson's 1828 campaign involved a media strategy and grassroots organizing.

In the following years, politicians began soliciting donations, leading to the first campaign finance laws to be put on the books in 1867. Donations and promises of positions continued to flourish, and wealthy families exercised influence with their money. For his 1896 campaign, William McKinley received more than $16 million in contributions, "an exorbitant sum for the time," according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the 20th century, candidates began holding fundraisers with celebrities who endorsed their campaigns.

Warren Harding was endorsed by numerous film stars and ran a successful presidential campaign in 1920, John F. Kennedy garnered the support of members of the Rat Pack in 1960, and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performed at a fundraiser for George McGovern in 1972 (though he still lost to Richard Nixon).

Over the years, changing legislation has both reined in corporate money and reversed course to qualify corporations as "people" with no spending limits.

In the early 20th century, laws prohibited trade organizations and unions from contributing directly to campaigns, leading to the creation of political action committees (or PACs), voluntary groups of individuals raising money for candidates.

There has also been much debate over corporations' involvement in campaign fundraising. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. The move reversed 100-year-old campaign finance laws and helped lead to the birth of the super PAC.

These days, it's more unusual for candidates not to accept funds from corporations or billionaires, but small donations from people across the country also add up.

Candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders stood out in 2016 by eschewing big donors and funding their presidential campaign through numerous small contributions, most under $200.

These days, candidates are able to raise mind-boggling sums of money. Joe Biden's campaign raised a record $383 million in September 2020, over half of which came from online donations. On average, donors gave $44.

According to the New York Times, as of October 2020, "Mr. Trump's campaign and its shared committees with the Republican National Committee have raised $1.5 billion since the start of 2019."

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