Taking America’s Temperature

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The election of 1828 changed all that. Andrew Jackson, frontier war hero, a rugged figure who was prosperous but self-made, self-educated and proud of it, was the people’s hero who dethroned King Caucus. By the time he stepped down, in 1837, a new kind of party system, organized from the bottom up, had been born. It depended on flattering the multitudes with extravaganzas and promises, and the first recognizably demagogic campaign was fought in 1840 when Jackson’s old enemies, by then called the Whig party, won by stealing his symbols and portrayed their man, the Virginia aristocrat William Henry Harrison—selected at a convention—as a hard-cider-drinking, dirt-common inhabitant of a log cabin and won, with high voter turnouts rarely ever surpassed. In the next 60 years the modern Republican and Democratic parties became solid institutions. Their inner circles of kingmakers handled the presidential candidates, keeping them, if possible, from blurting out any opinions whatever and encouraging only limited appearances to shake hands and radiate goodwill. (So much for the imaginary past of high-minded, issue-oriented campaigns.)

Counting as well as courting the masses became part of the game as early as 1824. Straw polls began to appear in the heavily partisan press. They were named for the practice of tossing straw in the air to find which way the wind blew, and were about as fine-tuned. In some public setting, a simple question would be put, by either a reporter or an interested party, and the results were printed with little pretense of objectivity. Thus, in 1856, the Chicago Tribune recorded the response of 24 War of 1812 veterans, who were picking up their pensions, to a question on their presidential preference from “a gentleman who was present.” They were 21-3 for the Republican, J. C. Frémont. “It seems,” concluded the editor, “that those who fought and bled for their country still remain on the side of their country.” A more detached survey was undertaken 20 years later by a Tribune reporter who simply asked people descending from an excursion train for their intentions and found Rutherford B. Hayes ahead of Samuel Tilden, 65-13. The prize for artistic detail might well go to an upstate New York Times reader who relayed the results of a straw vote taken by “an enthusiastic drummer” in a car on a southbound train on an October day in 1896. Eighteen passengers went for McKinley and five for Bryan. When Ballston was reached, the five Bryanites got off together, and “then it was seen that they were handcuffed together, and were a gang of prisoners on their way to the county jail.” By the end of the 180Os, as mass-circulation newspapers shed the need for party support, more and more independent straw votes tried to forecast outcomes.

Party leaders had reality-based quasi polls of their own to guide them. State political machines rested on county organizations whose reach extended downward into the city streets, where ward and precinct workers ate and drank with “their” voters, handed out the jobs and the favors, and collected the dues. A chairman eager to know what was on constituents’ minds could get information firsthand from his subordinates. If the election results themselves proved it unreliable, heads rolled. The party hegemony might provide a spotty kind of democracy, but democracy it was. Viscount James Bryce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in 1891 that “America has shown more boldness in trusting public opinion, in recognizing and giving effect to it, than has yet been shown elsewhere. Towering over … the vast machinery of party, public opinion stands out, in the United States, as the great source of power. …”

Reverence for public opinion seemed at its highest when progressive America began a revolt against political bosses at the century’s turn. Presidential aspirants like William Jennings Bryan, and Presidents themselves, like Theodore Roosevelt, took to the rails to plead their cases directly to the people from the rear platforms at every hamlet and crossing. Whistle-stopping focused new attention on the candidates as humans and opened new avenues of inquiry about how voters liked their styles and personalities. Meanwhile, other innovators encouraged unmediated popular participation in government. The Constitution was amended to allow the direct election of senators, and various states adopted the primary election for choosing candidates and even introduced the initiative and referendum, which allowed propositions to be put to a general vote, by-passing the legislature altogether. It seemed the ultimate democratic triumph: straight-out “popular” rather than “representative” government.