Like the presidency, itself, the way we choose our president has changed over the years. In the past decade, the price tag on presidential campaigns has risen sharply. Before the year 2000, total spending for each election never cost more than $450 million. But in 2004, it suddenly shot up to $850 million. It reached $1.3 billion in 2008, and this year, it’s expected to exceed $5 billion.
If it seems that the presidential campaign has changed dramatically in our lifetime, consider how it looked to Rebecca Harding Davis. In 1903, she wrote “Nothing… [shows] the change in this country during the last 50 years as the difference in our conduct of the presidential campaigns.”
She was 72 years old when she wrote “Presidential Campaigns of Today and Yesterday” for the Post, and she could look back over 19 presidential campaigns that she’d witnessed from her home in western Virginia. The biggest change was that elections no longer centered on a great moral issue, which divided the country before the Civil War. “The crucial question usually is, in fact; some difference in financial policy—a matter but vaguely comprehended by the masses. It is likely to affect the pocket of the country rather than its conscience. Hence, no voter now, unless he is looking forward to office, is likely to lose a night’s sleep in anxiety about the issue.”
The other difference was that the campaigns were no longer conducted at the local level. Now they were directed by distant “commanders” who spent the money and made the decisions in some distant city. How different, she wrote, from the elections she remembered from the 1830s, when “the campaign was a part of the personal life of each American.”
In the old days a presidential campaign was a family feud. The candidates were known to every farmer, butcher and schoolboy from the Penobscot to the Missouri. They were called “Bill ” or “Jim” in every store and smithy, and were hated or loved with the passion of clansmen against or for their chiefs.
Men stabbed each other to the death in the fury of dispute as to whether Mrs. Andrew Jackson smoked a pipe after dinner or not, or whether Hamilton had maligned Burr, or Burr had murdered Hamilton.
Each village had its mass meeting, to which the farms and little towns of half a dozen counties sent deputations; there were party mottoes, party songs, party flags.”
The first of these campaigns which I remember was that of Harrison and Van Buren.
Every household was at work for weeks preparing for it. Hams were boiled, turkeys and chickens roasted by the scores. … An open table was set on the lawn or the porch of each dwelling, and every house was made gay with bunting and appropriate mottoes, such as “The latch-string is out.” “All welcome!”
Deputations came from towns and hamlets within a circuit of fifty miles. … Each division had its band of native talent and its homemade flag of original device.
The only duty of the convention, apparently, was to march and counter-march all day, up and down the long streets with flying flags, to the sound of fifes, drums, and clashing cymbals. Lawyers, farmers, butchers, and bakers marched under the queer banners with a stern exultation. … There were bands of men from the other side of the [Ohio] river, their horses and themselves covered with strings of horse chestnuts, or buckeyes, Ohio being the “Buckeye State,” and Harrison the “Ohio Pioneer.”
The town was in a frenzy of delight at these shows; the church bells rang, the people crowded the sidewalks, cheering as each band went by.
Undoubtedly the most popular of the devices were the floats on which were log cabins supposed to represent the birthplace and home of “Old Tip” [the nickname given to Harrison for his victory over Tecumseh’s tribe at the Battle of Tippecanoe.]
In some of them the boy Harrison, exceedingly ragged and unwashed, was seen squatted by the fire; sometimes he was engaged in cutting up a bear which he had just killed.
One cabin, however, drove the lookers-on into a fervor of loyalty to the candidate. In it the boy, a pistol in each hand, was holding at bay two gigantic Indians who were attacking the windows. Of course the people shouted. Nobody then doubted that the squatter always was a just, wronged man, and a favored child of God, and the Indian always a fiend, made up of all vices, the offspring of the devil. We never then looked on the other side. That is a modern uncomfortable habit.
In 1903, Ms. Davis watched the campaign between Teddy Roosevelt and Alton Parker, and wondered, “What quiet doctor or minister in any country town would now parade the streets bestrung with buckeyes and shouting campaign songs?” Those campaigners were part of a country that was still young in the 1840s and ‘50s. They hated and loved with unreasoning fury, she believed, and were led by personal likes and dislikes in a way that would seem childish “to this more adult generation, which is governed by high moral reasons, or by greed, or by expediency.”