How political campaigning has changed throughout US history

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September 7, 2020
Mark Van Scyoc // Shutterstock

How political campaigning has changed throughout U.S. history

Voters and political reporters have closely followed President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as they have campaigned through a global pandemic, national protests, and a U.S. economic downturn. On Sept. 29. at 9 p.m. EST, the 2020 presidential candidates will finally go head-to-head on a debate stage for the first time. While campaigning, debating, and running for president is nothing new, this year's presidential election is very different than the first presidential election in the United States.

Over 230 years ago, on Feb. 4, 1789, 69 electoral voters from 10 different states (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia) unanimously voted to make George Washington the first president of the newly established United States. On April 30, at New York City's Federal Hall (the first capital of the United States), Washington was sworn into office. Our nation's first leader never made a single campaign speech, shot a single commercial, or sought to fundraise a single dollar to support his campaign.

Today, running for office as leader of the free world looks totally different. Candidates, both democrat and republican, spend months traveling around the country giving speeches, shaking hands, and asking for "just a few dollars" to support their campaign. Not a single candidate since that first election has ever been unanimously voted into office. Instead, margins have become so close that parties have demanded recounts to ensure their candidate wasn't wrongly denied votes of the Electoral College.

In honor of the upcoming debate and election, Stacker is taking a deep dive into campaign history. We're looking at 25 ways political campaigns have changed throughout America's 231-year presidential history. Using sources like Politico, The Center for Responsive Politics, and various news sources, we've compiled a list of facts detailing how everything from fundraising and spending to voter outreach has changed. In particular, we've focused on how social media and the internet have impacted how political candidates run for office.

Read on to see just how different the 2020 presidential race is from that first one way back in 1789. While some things have certainly changed for the better, we're sure that regardless of where you stand politically, you're sure to long for the simpler, less time-consuming ways of campaigns past.

The cost of a federal election has skyrocketed

First thing’s first: The cost of federal elections has skyrocketed since the early years of campaigning in America. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that a grand total of $3.08 billion was spent on both the presidential and congressional elections in 2000. By 2016, that number had jumped to $6.51 billion, with $2.39 billion spent on the presidential race alone.

[Pictured: Voter at polls during 2008 presidential election.]

Spending on digital campaigning is increasing

Not only are current political candidates spending more to get elected, but they’re also spending that money far differently than their predecessors. For the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump spent 50% of his budget on digital campaigning. In June of that year, five months before the election itself, Trump spent $1.63 million on digital ads and another $29,000 on Facebook ads to target a younger demographic who spends far more time online than reading newspapers or listening to the radio.

[Pictured: 2016 Trump campaign sign along Route 30 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.]

Social media has greatly increased a candidate’s reach

In February 2019, Pew Research reported that 72% of adults used at least one social media site, like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. This means that with every tweet or status update, candidates can reach millions of people at a time. Many devoted supporters will then re-post the candidate’s message, allowing for an even wider reach, making social media an invaluable tool in modern-day campaigning.

[Pictured: Twitter account of President Trump.]

We’ve entered a new era of campaign media

Back in the day, newspapers were the primary way of disseminating information surrounding political campaigns, giving them an immense amount of power. The newspapers could, essentially, strangle a campaign if they wanted to. In 1992, when third-party candidate Ross Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton appeared on various talk shows, we entered into a new era of campaign media—one which utilized television and radio alongside traditional print media, and allowed candidates to circumnavigate this chokehold.

[Pictured: Bill Clinton on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992.]

Candidates are spending big bucks on TV advertisements

In 1952, a Madison Avenue marketing executive convinced presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower that television advertisements would reach a wider audience than any other available form of advertising. Today, nearly everyone running for office sinks their money into at least one commercial. Some candidates, like Michael Bloomberg, use a massive portion of their budget for these 30- to 60-second spots (Bloomberg reportedly spent $22 million on TV ads in a single week).

[Pictured: An advertisement for Tom Steyer's presidential campaign plays inside the Hy-Vee grocery store in Waverly, Iowa.]

Campaigns are becoming more data-driven

In years past, political candidates tried to predict political beliefs and voting behaviors on things like prior voting records and consumer purchase histories. These days, that’s not enough for politicians who want to more specifically target potential supporters. For example, during his 2016 campaign, President Trump hired Cambridge Analytica to analyze 4,000-5,000 data points on every American adult to speak more directly to small groups and even individual voters.

[Pictured: CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, speaks at the 2016 Concordia Summit.]

Candidates are building their own apps

Candidates on local, state, and federal levels aren’t just relying on pre-existing social media to reach voters. Instead, many candidates, including current Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump, are releasing their own apps. These apps do everything from collect voter data, to identify swing voters, to allow devoted supporters to add their friends to a group where they can stay up to date on campaign news and be persuaded to vote for said candidate.

[Pictured: Man using the Bernie Sanders app on his phone.]

Candidates are making unique efforts to mobilize voters

Once upon a time, you voted because it was a hard-won civic duty. These days, voting is considered a chore that many would rather skip out on. To get more citizens to vote, candidates are seeking unique ways to mobilize their supporters. For example, in 2007 the Obama campaign held the “Walk for Change” day of action in which members of a community reached out to their neighbors explaining why Obama was the right fit for the country, registered voters, and encouraged them to show up on the first Tuesday in November.

[Pictured: 2016 Bernie Sanders Campaign Voter Registration in New York City.]

Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions have become political tools

Those who have spent any time on Reddit are sure to be at least vaguely aware of its “Ask Me Anything” sessions, where the website’s users can literally ask notable figures anything and get answers in real-time. Often done by celebrities and athletes, political candidates are getting in on the action as well to more directly connect with young voters (Reddit users tend to be 29 and below). During the 2012 election season, President Obama hosted an AMA, and during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Donald Trump hosted one on his own subreddit.

[Pictured: Woman using Reddit application on a smartphone.]

Candidacy announcements are drawn out

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower announced that he was running for President in a brief, 30-minute speech. In 2019, after weeks of Instagram and Twitter posts hinting at as much, Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy on stage in Lawrence, Massachusetts—then appeared on several talk shows and news programs in the following days to increase the amount of buzz around her declaration. It's not just Warren who is drawing out her candidacy announcement; almost all political candidates have now made the process one that takes months instead of a single afternoon to harness as much attention as possible.

[Pictured: Senator Elizabeth Warren announces her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts.]

Celebrities have become more involved in campaigning

While having a celebrity’s endorsement is nothing new in the political world—Warren Harding was endorsed by film star Lillian Russell as far back as the 1920 election—their role in the campaign process has changed quite dramatically. These days celebrities lend credibility to candidates, as the general public sees stars as more trustworthy than politicians. Campaigns also utilize a celebrity’s own social media reach to spread the tenets of the candidate’s political platform farther than they could alone.

[Pictured: Actor Susan Sarandon addresses supporters at a rally for Bernie Sanders on Feb. 14, 2020 in Durham, North Carolina.]

The evolution of campaign swag

Campaigns, at their core, are essentially just massive popularity contests, and one way that candidates assess and show their popularity is through the distribution of campaign clothing and accessories. As far back as 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office, supporters were wearing buttons with pictures of honest Abe’s face on them. Buttons are still worn by political followers today, but swag has expanded to include T-shirts, bumper stickers, baseball caps, and beer koozies.

[Pictured: A vendor selling President Donald J. Trump merchandise outside of Trump's Keep America Great rally.]

Candidates are hiring speech coaches

Since the founding of the first public office in America, political candidates have been delivering speeches. In days past, these speeches could be on the dryer side, with audiences caring more about the content of the oration than the way it was given. Today, a dry speech simply won’t fly—no matter how good and important the content—and candidates, like Joe Biden, have taken to hiring speech coaches to help them give lively attention-grabbing addresses.

[Pictured: Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a South Carolina campaign launch party on Feb. 11, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina.]

Small donor campaign donations have increased

In the past, small individual donations made up a minute percentage of a candidate’s overall campaign budget. These days, thanks to an abundance of cheap and easy-to-use online donation platforms, this type of fundraising contribution has increased dramatically. The Center for Public Integrity reported that by September 2019, over 70% more had been given to Democratic candidates than by the same point in the last election cycle.

[Pictured: An editor looks at the campaign donations websites from some Democratic party candidates in the race for the White House 2020.]

The establishment of the FEC

As political campaigns become a bigger and bigger business, Americans have pushed for tighter regulations to ensure an office can't simply be "bought." In 1975, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was established in order to "protect the integrity of the federal campaign finance process by providing transparency and fairly enforcing and administering federal campaign finance laws." The office establishes and enforces limits on contributions from individuals, political parties, and PACs.

[Pictured: Federal Election Commission (FEC) in Washington D.C.]

The evolution of Political Action Committees

While Political Action Committees (PACs) are a commonplace part of campaigning and elections today, it hasn’t always been that way. These groups, which represent a business, ideological, or labor interest, first began in 1944 when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) formed to re-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Currently, PACs can contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate per election, or $15,000 to a national party annually.

[Pictured: U.S. President Donald Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage at CPAC in National Harbor.]

There’s increased flexibility in campaigning

Once upon a time, political campaign strategies were decided upon months before they were ever set in place and then etched in stone. These days, thanks to the rise of the internet, campaigns are much more flexible. Candidates may roll out several versions of their website, and send 50 different personalized email templates, before analyzing the response to each one to determine the best approach to meet their goals and have the furthest reach.

[Pictured: Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on Oct. 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio.]

Candidates are making a bigger effort to be LGBTQ+ friendly

During the 2016 presidential race, both Trump and Clinton attempted to engage the LGBTQ+ community. Once a marginalized group in society, candidates now realize that the group makes up an important part of their respective coalitions and that their rights and concerns, like every other group’s, must be acknowledged in order to assure a vote. Legal scholar Katherine Franke put it this way: “States have come to see that their political power, their legitimacy, indeed their standing as global citizens, are bound up with how they recognize and then treat ‘their’ gay citizens.”

[Pictured: Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets people as she marches in the 46th annual New York City Gay Pride Parade.]

African Americans have become a central focus in campaigns

Black voters were once not considered by political candidates (in fact, an African American man’s right to vote wasn’t even protected under the law until 1870), but today nearly every viable candidate attempts to reach out to and support the coalition. Some candidates, like Elizabeth Warren who spoke at several HBCUs during her 2020 campaign, do it very publically, while others, like Beto O'Rourke, do it behind the scenes, speaking with African American leaders and organizations in private.

[Pictured: President Barack Obama meets with students of Florida Memorial University in 2016.]

Candidates have begun to realize the power of Latino voters

In 2019, NBC News reported that, for the first time, Latino voters would have major pull in choosing the Democratic candidate. As the number of Hispanic voters in the country has ballooned, candidates for all levels of office have realized that having the support of the contingency is vitally important to the success of their campaigns. As a result, they're spending increasingly large amounts of time courting the demographic in targeted events, hoping to win their support.

[Pictured: Supporters show their support for Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump at the Anaheim Convention Center.]

Campaign cycles are getting longer

We mentioned earlier that campaigns, especially presidential campaigns, have been getting more expensive in recent years. One reason for this increase is that campaign cycles have been getting much, much longer. In America’s early days, congress picked presidential candidates, but this was abolished entirely after WWII and the establishment of primary elections, so candidates campaigned on their own to prove their viability. When JFK ran for president in 1960, he announced his candidacy 11 months before voting day. By the time the 2016 election rolled around, candidates had been campaigning for a grand total of 597 days.

[Pictured: Signs supporting 2020 presidential candidates at the Polk County Democratic Party Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa.]

Campaign trails haven’t always existed

Since Congress was in charge of picking presidential nominees in the country’s early days, it wasn’t necessary for candidates to embark on a campaign trail. In fact, Smithsonian Magazine’s John Ferling says that early presidents like Thomas Jefferson, “did not kiss babies, ride in parades or shake hands. Nor did they even make stump speeches.” That’s a far cry from the campaign trails of today that can take a candidate across the country and back multiple times.

[Pictured: Pete Buttigieg is introduced at a rally at Rancho High School on Feb. 16, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada.]

Debates are now televised

Debates between presidential candidates date back several years, but they haven’t always been accessible to the country at large. The first 1960 presidential debate, between JFK and Richard Nixon, aired on national TV. During the present campaign cycle, there will be a grand total of 12 debates for the Democratic party alone.

[Pictured: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump walk off the stage after the final presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.]

Self-promotion was considered un-American

During these debates, and throughout all of campaign season, our televisions will be filled with political commercials. Many of these commercials will see candidates talking up their best attributes, biggest political successes, and reading laundry lists of their various accomplishments. This is a relatively new phenomenon—during the Founding Fathers’ era, blatant self-promotion was deemed unacceptable and un-American, as this boasting didn’t mesh with the service-focused nature of the job.

[Pictured: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona.]

News coverage has gotten less partisan

While today's news sources may seem to be biased in favor of one candidate or another (and a handful certainly are), news coverage is, by and large, far less partisan than it was 100 years ago. During the 19th century, newspapers overtly favored certain candidates over another. Even believing, according to the University of Wisconsin - Madison's James L. Baughman, that their mission was to "convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed" rather than report the clear, unbiased facts of the present situation.

[Pictured: Joe Biden exits a campaign event at Jeno's Little Hungary in Davenport, Iowa.]

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