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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
The actual mechanics of the campaign have changed somewhat over the years. It was originally considered good form for the candidate to stay at home quietly during the pre-election season, maintaining the fiction that he was a Cincinnatus whom the office was seeking out—a good citizen unwilling to leave home and hearth except to answer the nation’s call. Though a few exceptions occurred in the nineteenth century, the pattern was most dramatically broken by Bryan in 1896. The “Boy Orator of the Platte” travelled some 18,000 miles by rail, lifting his voice five and six times a day against the Republican worshippers of Mammon. Republican manager Mark Hanna, by contrast, kept his man, William McKinley, at home in Canton, Ohio, while delegations representing labor, industry, agriculture, the churches, immigrants, and every variety of political animal, journeyed to the McKinley residence. There, in carefully prepared extempore speeches, “the Major” (a title earned in the Civil War) would assure everyone that he was with them then and forever, world without end. This “front porch campaign” got McKinley elected, vindicating Hanna’s judgment.
Nevertheless, American life was becoming more and more mobile, and it seemed fitting for the campaigner to get out and show himself to the populace. Even the Socialist candidate of 1908, Eugene V. Debs, mustered enough money to finance a nationwide rail tour. His train was appropriately called The Red Special. Ultimately, almost every candidate embarked on whistle-stop tours. They became a fine art. The train would pull into a depot, and while the locomotive panted up front, the prospective President would step out onto the observation platform and deliver a few remarks on the merits, beauties, and contributions to the national weal of Blankville. Working from a hasty briefing by his staff, he would refer to a few local dignitaries and monuments in a tone of affectionate familiarity. His last few words were sometimes drowned out by the hiss of steam and a hoarse toot as the train started once more. Now and then this was providential, for in the excitement of the moment, candidates have been known to bid a fond good-by to the wrong town. The whistle-stop tour was supposedly rendered obsolete after World War II, as the railroads declined from their former grandeur: but Harry Truman used the device with stunning effect in 1948. The 1960 campaign saw both candidates travel extensively, too, but this time by jet aircraft, leading to such miracles as the following: in the last week before election day, Kennedy spent Monday in Philadelphia; Tuesday in Los Angeles; Wednesday in San Francisco; Thursday in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, and Oklahoma City; Friday in Virginia, Ohio, and Chicago; and Saturday in New York. Nixon’s itinerary was equally fantastic. Yet neither man could forgo the campaign trail, for it is now part of the mystique that the candidate must appear to be not only everything to everyone, but must manifest himself in the flesh as nearly everywhere as possible. Or at least, everywhere in the states with large electoral votes. (Nixon made a point of showing himself in all fifty; but his repeat performances took place where the voters were thickest.)
Presumably the coming of television may work new changes in the pattern of the campaign, but it is too early to tell. The Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 are generally assumed to have had considerable impact in publicizing Kennedy nationally. It is also possible that Nixon suffered a psychological setback by appearing haggard and defensive in the first encounter. (He had recently been ill, and was badly made up.) But until such debates are repeated it will be difficult to know whether the picture tube is going to have an effect on campaigning comparable to that of the locomotive when it reached its peak use in the whistle-stop tours.
In the end, what does it all amount to? When the tumult and the shouting die, and both candidates have identified themselves with every ethnic group and every occupation, every private virtue and every public aspiration, and half the nation’s public men have denounced the other half as deluded visionaries or corrupt tools of privilege—when all is over, the vote is divided almost evenly between the two parties. The Electoral College system masks the fact that few winning candidates get much more than fifty per cent of the ballots—or a little less, if third-party candidates take a portion of the total. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, in winning the landslide election of 1936, got only something like fifty-eight per cent of the popular vote. The pattern of most elections reveals surprisingly close divisions. In 1880, fewer than 8,000 popular votes out of some 9 million cast separated Garfield, the winner, from Hancock, the loser. Eighty years later, Kennedy had 112,881 votes more than Nixon, out of a total of nearly 69 million. The difference was approximately one tenth of one per cent. These two are the narrowest gaps, but rarely are they very much wider. The winnertake-all system of the electoral vote by states distorts the reality of a near-perfect balance between major parties. But once that balance is understood, it is much easier to explain why political life settles back so quickly to normal, or why even the greatest “mandate” for an incoming President ordinarily permits him to undertake only gradual changes, and those circumspectly. There are no truly crushing victories or unbearable defeats, and consequently, no unchecked arrogance among the winners or hopeless bitterness among the losers. The nation remains in equilibrium.